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March 26, 2013

Proposed National Lawyer Service Corps Addresses Need for Immigrant Counsel

As reported last week in the New York Times, Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has proposed a National Lawyer Service Corps to address the severe shortage of lawyers to assist unrepresented indigent immigrants. Judge Katzmann’s Lawyer Service Corps proposal would pair the experience of retiring lawyers with recent law graduates, creating a mechanism to train new lawyers in immigration law and send them to serve communities with the greatest need for immigrant counsel.

Every statistic and anecdote points to the need for the kind of creativity used to propose the Lawyer Service Corps. According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), nearly half of all immigrants in immigration proceedings do not have a lawyer. Human Rights First has recently analyzed additional EOIR statistics showing that only about one in four immigrants held in immigration detention have counsel at some point in their proceedings.  Federal and immigration judges have said that representation in proceedings creates a more efficient and fair adjudication process. More importantly, experts have found that a lawyer can often be the single most important factor in determining whether an asylum seeker is deported, potentially to life-threatening conditions, or whether she can remain safely in the United States with legal status.

There are many steps that need to be taken to address this national challenge. The New York Study Group on Immigrant Representation, under Judge Katzmann’s leadership, has identified various measures that could increase legal representation for indigent immigrants in New York.  Human Rights First, working with the Study Group and the Federal Bar Council, has—through the work of our Leon Levy Fellow—launched a new representation referral effort called the Asylum Representation Project to provide legal information and pro bono counsel to indigent asylum seekers.  In New Jersey, a group of committed advocates, experts and practitioners, under the leadership of U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Judge Michael Chagares, have launched the Working Group on Immigrant Representation to develop solutions to the shortage of immigration representation there. Human Rights First is also working with law schools and other stakeholders across the country to advance concrete dialogues to help address this gap in legal representation.

But Congress, too, must take steps to address these gaps in any immigration reform initiative. At a minimum, reform should include the expansion of government-funded Legal Orientation Programs to help service providers give Know Your Rights presentations to detained immigrants. Reforms should also promote efficiency and justice by supporting legal representation programs, especially in the cases of minors and those with mental disabilities.

Judge Paul Grussendorf, a former immigration judge, testified during a March 20 Senate Judiciary Hearing entitled “Building an Immigration System Worthy of American Values” that, “It is not in conformity with American values to detain someone in a remote facility, often in the desert, separated from their family, from medical care providers, under circumstances where it's virtually impossible for someone, especially from a different culture, different language, to be able to obtain counsel.” Other witnesses, and Senator Coons who presided over the hearing, echoed his call for an increase in access to counsel.

Meaningful implementation of any immigration reform will require meaningful access to high-quality lawyers. As Judge Katzmann recently stated, “If there is comprehensive immigration legislation, the imperative of having an expanded pool of quality counsel will be greater because virtually every person eligible for relief will need legal assistance.” As we await new laws, we applaud the efforts and initiative of Judge Katzmann and so many others who are working to help address the gap in access to counsel for indigent immigrants. And we look forward to Congress taking seriously the long overdue need to address this ongoing crisis in legal representation.