Association of Pro Bono Counsel Urges Senate to Act on Immigration and Asylum Representation
Washington, D.C. – As the full Senate prepares to debate immigration reform, the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) is urging senators to pass legislation that contains provisions designed to improve efficiency, reduce costs and protect those filing for asylum in the United States. In a letter that Human Rights First says demonstrates the legal community’s strong support for elimination of the asylum filing deadline and measures that improve access to counsel, the Association’s current president, Latonia Haney Keith of McDermott Will & Emery LLP, and president-elect, Steven Schulman of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, advocate for a series of reforms they write will enhance their firms’ ability to provide free legal services efficiently and effectively.
Nearly all of the APBCo’s 120 members are private lawyers who lead the pro bono practices at more than 85 of the world’s largest law firms. These firms provide millions of hours of pro bono legal services each year and a substantial portion of that time is devoted to representing immigrations, including representing those seeking asylum and defending those facing removal proceedings in immigration court.
In their open letter to the Senate, Keith and Schulman write, “Removing the asylum filing deadline bar will increase the availability of pro bono services provided by our firms… litigating one-year filing deadline issues can consume tremendous amounts of pro bono resources that could be better spent on substantive issues.” The pro bono leaders also stress the importance of appointed counsel for vulnerable populations, legal orientation presentations to increase pro bono referrals for detained immigrants, and addressing the long backlogs in immigration court proceedings through increased court staffing.
In addition to elimination of the filing deadline, a measure included in the Senate immigration reform bill, S. 744, APBCo is urging elected Senators to maintain and protect a number of other measures in S. 744 that will improve access to legal counsel in asylum and immigration court proceedings, including:
- Allowing arriving immigrants to seek asylum in a non-adversarial interview rather than being forced to claim asylum in a removal proceeding in immigration court;
- Increasing the number of immigration judges and support staff, which will improve immigrants’ access to pro bono counsel and alleviate the current backlog in immigration court;
- Requiring the Attorney General to appoint counsel for unaccompanied minors and individuals with serious mental disabilities;
- Expanding Legal Orientation Programs to all immigration detention centers; and,
- Requiring the Department of Homeland Security to provide essential documents to immigrants without first filing a Freedom of Information Act request, which will eliminate wasteful filings.
“Pro bono lawyers from these major U.S. law firms volunteer millions of hours of time each year to represent asylum seekers and immigrants in our flawed immigration system,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer. “They are uniquely placed to identify inefficiencies and impediments to justice that are inconsistent with American values. These leading pro bono lawyers are right to urge the Senate to lead on steps that will enhance access to pro bono counsel – including elimination of the arbitrary asylum filing deadline and other common sense measures to increase legal representation.”