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Home / Blog / Addressing the Challenges of Immigrant Representation in Louisiana
April 09, 2014

Addressing the Challenges of Immigrant Representation in Louisiana

In yesterday’s Times-Picayune,  Assistant Professor Ken Mayeaux of Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Herbert Law Center (LSU Law), discussed the gaps in legal representation for immigrants. Only 13% of the thousands of immigrants held in remote immigration detention facilities in Louisiana are represented by counsel, he pointed out, and only one of the three immigration detention facilities in the state has a “Legal Orientation Program,” a Department of Justice-funded project that provides legal information to immigration detainees.

These problems were the focus of a recent conference held at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Co-sponsored by the Louisiana State Bar Association (LSBA), LSU Law, and Human Rights First, the March 28th conference sought to identify both gaps in legal representation and ways to help address them through collaborative action. Over 100 people attended.

The immigrant population in Louisiana has grown steadily in the years following Hurricane Katrina. In fact, many immigrants helped to rebuild neighborhoods devastated by the storm. The state is also home to a significant number of immigration detention beds, primarily in facilities located hours from potential pro bono counsel. (A map prepared by Human Rights First illustrates the locations of immigration detention facilities in Louisiana.) Archbishop Gregory Michael Aymond of the Archdiocese of New Orleans sent a special message to the conference, stressing the innate dignity of all people and urging action to address the challenges facing immigrants.

Following a welcome by Loyola Law Dean Maria Lopez, the day began with comments from American Bar Association (ABA) President James Silkenat, who outlined the ABA’s concerns about the lack of legal representation for indigent immigrants nationally, the organization’s efforts to address this problem, and the ABA’s Legal Access Job Corps, designed to help address unmet legal needs. He also referenced the work of Judge Robert Katzmann, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the New York Study Group on Immigrant Representation, which have helped to inspire foundations, law firms, and New York City government to increase support for pro bono representation of indigent immigrants.

Next up was LSBA President Richard Leefe, who described a new initiative to address the need for representation for indigent individuals in the state. Referencing the glaring lack of legal representation for immigrants held in detention facilities in geographically remote areas of Louisiana, Mr. Leefe asked “Is that what America is about?”

A panel moderated by Brandon Davis of Phelps Dunbar, Chair of the Immigration Law Committee of the New Orleans Bar Association (NOBA), identified a number of acute representation gaps facing immigrants in the state. These gaps—detailed in a paper prepared for the conference by Loyola Law School Professor Hiroko Kusuda and Human Rights First— affect asylum seekers, individuals in immigration court proceedings in New Orleans, immigrant victims of crime, and children eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

There are also thousands of immigrants held each year in remote immigration detention facilities in the state,  87% of which are unrepresented. The panelists and participants discussed the gaps in representation for those immigrant detainees in both immigration court proceedings and in custody hearings, often called “bond” hearings. Throughout the day, panelists and attendees also noted the lack of Legal Orientation Presentations at the immigration detention facilities in Waterproof and Basile.

Presentations from Louisiana non-profit organizations, including the Catholic Charities offices in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and the New Orleans’ based Pro Bono Project, made clear that there are existing projects in the state that could potentially be expanded to address these needs if they had sufficient resources. Steve Kolleeny, Special Counsel at Skadden Arps, described how attorneys at his firm’s many offices around the United States routinely take on pro bono asylum and immigration matters for representation, working with bar associations and nonprofit legal providers that are staffed to support that pro bono work.

The keynote address was an inspiring call to action by Judge Jay C. Zainey of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Judge Zainey described how he helped to launch Project H.E.L.P. (Homeless Experience Legal Protection), which enlists volunteer attorneys, law students, and others to provide pro bono assistance to homeless people. H.E.L.P. now operates in over 20 cities around the United States. Judge Zainey encouraged participants to replicate that kind of energy to address the lack of legal representation in immigration proceedings. In addition, during one panel, current and former government officials from the immigration court system, the asylum office, and from Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) explained how legal representation can make the process more effective and efficient and the job of judges, adjudicators, and government attorneys a lot easier.

A final panel, moderated by LSBA President Elect (2015-16) Mark Cunningham of Jones Walker, identified potential steps for addressing the state’s crisis in immigration representation. This robust discussion included: NOBA President Mark C. Surprenant of Adams and Reese LLP; Jan M. Hayden of Baker Donelson, Chair of the Board of the New Orleans Pro Bono Project; LSBA President Richard Leefe; leading immigration attorney Kathleen Gasparian, former chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Mid-South Chapter; and LSU Law Assistant Professor Mayeaux. The panel and attendees identified a number of potential next steps including:

  • Regular Working Group meetings to move forward on concrete ways to increase pro bono representation in immigration proceedings in Louisiana; 
  • Launching an immigration representation initiative at the New Orleans Pro Bono Project (working to secure the financial resources to hire staff expert on immigration matters to organize and oversee the initiative);
  • Launching discrete representation projects including a project focused on representation of detained immigrants during their custody (bond) hearings, a project to represent children in efforts to secure Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and/or a project to represent immigrant victims of crime;  
  • Efforts to galvanize additional attention and engagement to help move representation efforts forward; 
  • Recommending launch of Legal Orientation Programs at other immigration detention facilities in Louisiana, in particular the Waterproof and Basile facilities;
  • Boot Camp Trainings conducted by legal experts and recruitment of experienced immigration lawyers to serve as mentors to pro bono volunteers who join a new representation initiative; as well as
  • Broader initiatives to address a range of representation gaps in Louisiana that would include immigration representation.    

Throughout the day, the bar leaders, non-profit legal providers, and others at the conference made clear their interest and commitment to working together to address some of these gaps in legal representation. Many attendees were inspired by the energy in the room and several volunteered their help and support for any new representation project that is ultimately launched.

As Judge Zainey told the audience, based on his experience with Project H.E.L.P., anything is possible with volunteer support: “Build the program, have it really well organized, and all the lawyers have to do is volunteer.” Encouraging lawyers to join the effort to provide legal representation to immigrants, Judge Zainey stressed that while no one person can change the world, “each of us can truly change people’s lives.”