Lori Adams Testifies at New York City Council Committee on Immigration

Testimony of Lori Adams, Managing Attorney, Human Rights First at the New York City Council Committee on Immigration Oversight Hearing: Examining Models for Providing Legal Services for Immigrants in Deportation Proceedings

February 25, 2014

My name is Lori Adams, and I am the Managing Attorney in the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First.  I submit these comments on behalf of Human Rights First, and thank the City Council for the opportunity to testify.

I would like to highlight three effective models for providing legal services for immigrants in removal proceedings in New York City. First, the pro bono model – Human Rights First uses this model to bring attorneys from leading law firms together with indigent asylum-seekers who need representation and we mentor the law firm attorneys in that representation. Second, the collaborative model – we partner with other legal service organizations to run a screening and legal representation program at the New York Immigration Court; through the collaboration we can help with a broader range of types of cases than any one of the organizations could handle independently. Third, the fellowship model – through a two-year renewable fellowship, we created a screening and legal representation program just for asylum-seekers at the New York Immigration Court, and this model is successful because it works within our existing program in terms of case support and because of the support of a small group of law firms who have committed to taking the cases that result from that more targeted screening. Each of these is a different model for the screening of cases and the provision of legal services, but for any case accepted by Human Rights First, the attorneys who volunteer their time for the representation are provided with training, mentoring and support until the successful resolution of the case.

Human Rights First is a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals. We run one of the largest pro bono legal representation programs in this country for asylum seekers and other immigrants. We bring volunteer lawyers together with indigent refugees to protect their human rights by representing them in their asylum proceedings. Our unique approach—which combines helping asylum seekers and other immigrants gain protection and legal status while also pressing for fair and humane national asylum and immigration laws and policies—has proven to be highly effective in saving lives and bringing about sustained and positive change in refugee protection and human rights. Working in close coordination with our dedicated pro bono attorneys at top law firms, we have historically won asylum in over 90% of our cases, many of which are venued in the New York City immigration courts. Our model for providing free high-quality legal services to indigent asylum-seekers in the Immigration Court system is a model that works.

Since 1992, with the support of the Fund for New Citizens at the New York Community Trust, we have also been running a legal services and referral project at the New York Immigration Court. It is known as the Immigrant Representation Project (IRP). Human Rights First collaborates with other legal service organizations—namely, The Legal Aid Society, Catholic Charities, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—to provide comprehensive screenings of individuals in removal proceedings and then to provide free legal representation to a number of those individuals. This is the longest-running screening project of its kind in the country. The immigration judges and administrative staff at the New York Immigration Court recognize the value of the IRP and so they provide space on the same floor as the immigration courtrooms for these screenings to take place one week of each month. Following the screening week, we conduct in-depth intake interviews at our respective offices with a select number of those immigrants to evaluate their cases for pro bono legal representation.

One of the many strengths of the collaborative model is that each of the participating organizations has a slightly different model and brings expertise on different types of immigration cases, so we can effectively serve a large number and wide variety of clients. Human Rights First uses a pro bono mentoring model in which our in-house asylum experts vet cases, match asylum clients with volunteer lawyers at the large law firms, and then train and mentor the volunteer lawyers in that representation. Our focus on asylum and related forms of protection-based immigration helps us to stay at the cutting edge of this area of law and to maintain our very high success rate in those cases. Catholic Charities uses a direct representation model in which staff attorneys, accredited representatives, and law students working under their supervision litigate a range of immigration cases including cancellation of removal, family-based immigration, filings under VAWA (for immigrant victims of domestic violence), and humanitarian parole for immigrants who need access to emergency medical care in the United States. The Legal Aid Society uses a direct representation model in which attorneys in the immigration law unit represent immigrants, many of whom are long-time lawful permanent residents, who are in removal proceedings because of criminal convictions. When needed, the Legal Aid Society also calls upon the resources in its other units, including the criminal defense unit, to provide representation in ancillary legal matters which may otherwise prevent a successful outcome in the immigration case. With the resources and expertise in the four legal service organizations that conduct screenings, and the three which provide representation through the IRP, we maintain a high rate of success in a range of immigration cases venued at the New York Immigration Court. Of course there is a huge need for free and low-cost legal services in the immigration court system and we cannot take every case. The thorough screenings that we conduct in the pro bono room at the New York Immigration Court allow us to make effective referrals, when needed, to other legal service organizations who may be able to help.

Human Rights First is proud to have participated in the IRP collaborative for over two decades. The support of the Fund for New Citizens at the New York Community Trust has made it possible, through the IRP, to provide legal representation to a great many indigent asylum-seekers in New York City who would not otherwise have been able to afford legal counsel. For the first 22 years of its existence, the IRP has provided screenings and legal advice to more than 19,700 immigrants and has represented more than 4,200 low income New Yorkers facing removal proceedings.

Asylum is the first step on their pathway to permanent residence and eventual U.S. citizenship. The grant of asylum also gives hope to their families because our volunteer lawyers, once asylum is granted, continue working to reunite their asylee clients with their families by filing petitions to bring spouses and children to the United States. Without legal representation to help prove the merits of their claims, asylum seekers have little hope of being granted asylum protection and are at risk of being sent back to countries where they are in danger. Those who try to navigate the asylum system without counsel are up to six times more likely to have their claims rejected, and many of those who are unsuccessful in their asylum claims remain separated from their families abroad, some of whom may also be in danger of persecution or torture.

Our work with the IRP depends on the volunteer lawyers who are recruited and trained through our pro bono legal representation program. Through the years Human Rights First has trained thousands of attorneys to represent indigent asylum-seekers. In the process, our model has been replicated by other organizations throughout the country and earned us a first-rate reputation for professionalism and effectiveness. By securing high quality pro bono legal representation for indigent asylum seekers, we play a leading role in safeguarding the rights of refugees and other immigrants whose cases are pending before the New York Immigration Court.

Human Rights First recruits, trains, and supervises volunteer lawyers from the nation’s top law firms in New York City and elsewhere. Each year through our program over 1,000 lawyers (both newly trained and longtime volunteers with our program) contribute over 60,000 pro bono hours valued at almost $30,000,000 to represent indigent asylum seekers who have come to the U.S. to escape persecution and abuse. We also provide legal consultations to hundreds of other asylum seekers, and provided general information and legal referrals to thousands of others. Our cases are based in New York, New Jersey, and the Washington DC area. Human Rights First will soon open a new office in Houston, Texas to provide representation for asylum-seekers there as well. While I am focusing my remarks today on our work in the New York Immigration Court, it is worth noting that Human Rights First also represents asylum-seekers who are detained at government expense in immigration detention centers located in New Jersey and elsewhere. We represent asylum-seekers with cases on appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. Courts of Appeal. We also represent a large number of asylum-seekers with cases before the Asylum Office. High-quality representation before the local Asylum Offices can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of those affirmative cases. Each case that is granted at the Asylum Office is one fewer case that might otherwise have been referred into the already overburdened Immigration Court system.

Each year, through the IRP collaborative, Human Rights First takes new asylum cases for individuals who are in proceedings at the New York Immigration Court while also continuing to work on hundreds of cases that were accepted in prior years. These include cases that are still pending in the court system, as well as cases in which asylum was granted and our volunteer lawyers are helping with post-asylum benefits or are working to bring the clients’ families to safety in the U.S. as derivatives of the asylum grant.

The success of the IRP has made it a collaborative model worth replicating. I am a member of the Study Group on Immigrant Representation, led by the Honorable Robert A. Katzmann, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. With his encouragement, we discussed with the Study Group the possibility that we might expand upon the IRP to provide legal services to more indigent asylum-seekers in the New York Immigration Court.

In 2011, with the support of the Leon Levy Foundation, Human Rights First launched a project called the Asylum Representation Project (ARP). The funding allowed us to hire an experienced attorney for a fellowship to increase the number of asylum-seekers in proceedings at the New York Immigration Court who can benefit from our pro bono mentoring model. The ARP provides one additional day of screening at the New York Immigration Court each month, and from that screening Human Rights First takes on additional asylum cases for pro bono legal representation. Five law firms which are active in the Federal Bar Council have committed to taking those cases for pro bono representation. The firms are Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP; Morrison Foerster LLP; Sullivan & Cromwell LLP; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP. We are grateful for the commitment of these law firms, and to the other law firms which have also taken cases through the IRP and ARP for pro bono representation.

All client representation, including on cases screened and accepted through the IRP and ARP, is supervised by experienced Human Rights First attorneys. After a match is made between the client and the attorney who will represent the client, my colleagues and I at Human Rights First work closely with the pro bono attorneys to bring the case to a successful conclusion. Unlike many organizations that simply make the match, Human Rights First takes an active role in the case at every stage. Due to overcrowded dockets caused in part by the lack of funding for the hiring of new immigration judges, asylum seekers with cases pending at the New York Immigration Court face delays of up to three years before their cases will be heard and adjudicated. Human Rights First mentors the pro bono attorneys for as long as it takes until the cases reach a successful resolution.

Our collaboration with law firm attorneys gives many the confidence and satisfaction they need to continue taking on asylum cases after they complete their first case, which over time builds a cadre of more experienced attorneys who can help to support the work of their more junior colleagues on other asylum cases. New York City has always welcomed immigrants with open arms. We are confident that law firms in this city will continue to demonstrate support for our immigrant neighbors by providing pro bono legal representation to those who are indigent when that representation is supported by careful vetting of cases and experienced immigration attorneys who can mentor the pro bono attorneys in that representation.

The federal government does not provide universal government-funded counsel in immigration proceedings, and so there is a huge need for pro bono legal representation in this area. Without legal service providers to take the cases, many asylum seekers and other immigrants in removal proceedings face the harsh prospect of being removed from the United States simply because they cannot afford to pay for quality legal counsel. Although they may be eligible for asylum or other forms of relief, many are deported because they lack resources to pay for counsel who can help them navigate the complex U.S. immigration laws and procedure. Legal service providers who can provide high-quality free representation can make a real impact in these situations and can even save the lives of the immigrants they represent.

In 2011, the Study Group on Immigrant Representation issued Accessing Justice, a report that revealed the stark difference that legal representation makes in immigration cases. On one end of the spectrum, only 13% of unrepresented non-detained immigrants reach a successful outcome in their cases. That number jumps to 74% when the immigrant is represented. In the most recent five-year period analyzed by the report, there were nearly 15,000 unrepresented immigrants in the New York Immigration Courts, and many who had lawyers received poor quality representation. Those with any representation at all will have a greater likelihood of success in their immigration cases, and those with high-quality representation will be even more likely to win their cases.

As Accessing Justice explains, the capacity of under-resourced and over-stretched legal service organizations to provide representation for these immigrants cannot meet the tremendous demand. The predictable result is that thousands go without legal help and are sent back to countries where they may be separated from their families and at risk of persecution. The potential for creative solutions to this problem is huge. As Judge Katzmann explained before the Leon Levy Fellowship was created, “There is much that can be done pro bono by law firms and nonprofit organizations. . . . it would be useful if there were a system of referral for representation of noncitizens with plausible claims of relief, as determined by [a] screening.” We are grateful to be able to provide the screenings, referrals, and support to pro bono counsel that the IRP and ARP make possible so that some indigent asylum seekers have the high-quality pro bono representation that they so desperately need.

It would be interesting to explore whether additional sources of funding might make it possible to hire more attorneys to further expand on the collaborative model of the IRP and ARP. Government funding might allow some of our partner organizations to expand their work on behalf of immigrants in removal proceedings. Human Rights First does not accept government funding, but this is an idea that may be of interest to foundations or private donors as well. Regardless of the source of funding, with capacity to hire additional staff attorneys or fellows, the organizations may be able to expand the schedule to provide more screening days each month at the New York Immigration Court.

Of course, screening is just the first step in the successful representation of an asylum case. These cases are complex, and given the backlogs in immigration court adjudications, they can take years to make their way through the system to a successful resolution. It would be crucial for any expansion of the IRP and ARP model to make sure that the legal service organizations received financial support for the hiring of experienced immigration attorneys to train the screeners and to provide the representation or train and mentor pro bono attorneys in that representation over the long term.

In summary, there is a dire need for funding of legal services for indigent immigrants who are in removal proceedings in New York City. Human Rights First has, for decades, been running an effective pro bono mentoring program for asylum-seekers who could not otherwise afford high-quality legal representation. Through our participation in the IRP collaborative, and more recently through our ARP work, we know the value of a comprehensive screening and representation model which involves stable funding and effective partnerships between legal service organizations. We know that there is no single model that will fully address the need and we recognize the strength in collaborative efforts which match the type of immigration case with the type of representation that will be most effective. It is our hope that any future initiatives to provide legal services to immigrants in the city will be developed in consultation with the legal service providers that are already working together in such collaborations. Our immigration laws and procedures are complicated and effective representation of immigrants in removal proceedings requires the sustained commitment of attorneys who have developed expertise in this area. Any funding for a representation model which includes the screening of potential clients and the provision of direct or pro bono legal services must also include funding for the hiring of attorneys who are immigration experts and can sustain the model in the long-term.

We are grateful to the New York City Council and its Committee on Immigration for the opportunity to testify about effective models for providing legal services to indigent immigrant in proceedings at the New York Immigration Court and we look forward to further discussion of this important topic. Thank you.


Published on February 26, 2014


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