Meeting of the Minds in Los Angeles on Legal Representation for Immigrants

By Eleanor Acer

Vice President Joe Biden recently called on the legal community to step up efforts to provide pro bono representation for immigrant children. California Attorney General Kamala Harris subsequently requested that law firms in the state donate 500 hours to pro bono representation of immigrant children, and the California legislature announced that 3 million dollars will go to legal services for immigrant children.

These calls to action and additional resources coincided with a “meeting of the minds” that took place at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles earlier this month. A wide spectrum of speakers discussed the acute gaps in legal representation for immigrants, both children and adults, in the area.

One of the most diverse cities in the world, Los Angeles has an undocumented population that is estimated at 1.1 million people.  The city’s immigrants hail from a range of places including Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, Korea, Iran, China, and Armenia.

Los Angeles is also a top destination for many of the unaccompanied children from Central America who have recently crossed the U.S. southern border.  Many have parents or family already living in the Los Angeles area.  Southern California is also host to four immigration detention facilities – including the Adelanto Detention Center, which is a 1,300 bed facility.

Speakers at the symposium included representatives of state, city, and federal government, law schools, leading law firms, non-profit legal organizations, faith-based groups, and private philanthropy. The event was organized by Human Rights First, along with Loyola Law School Los Angeles, UCLA School of Law, University of California Irvine School of Law, the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law & Policy, Loyola Law School Immigrant Justice Clinic, and UCLA and Loyola’s Immigration Law Societies.

Linda Lopez, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, who was profiled in a Los Angeles Times this week, called for more legal services for immigrants in Los Angeles and noted that the attention on unaccompanied children provides an opportunity to try to develop a more robust system for legal services and representation. Experienced government adjudicators—including The Honorable A. Ashley Tabbador and David Radel, the Director of the Los Angeles Asylum Office—offered perspectives on how legal counsel improves the efficiency and conduct of immigration and asylum proceedings.

In her keynote address, the Honorable Jacqueline H. Nguyen of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, spoke about the court’s pro bono program and emphasized the tremendous gap in representation at the immigration court level. She pointed out that the numbers in need of representation are “staggering” and the need is severe, noting that “all that makes life worth living is in the balance.”  Describing her own family’s history as refugees from Vietnam, Judge Nguyen said that she could not imagine the difficulty of proving eligibility for asylum without a lawyer. Citing statistics to illustrate her point, she told the audience that “having counsel’s assistance makes all the difference in the world in these immigration matters.”

The panelists and audience members—including experts from CARECEN, Esperanza, KIND, and Public Counsel—identified a number of specific gaps, including lack of representation for unaccompanied children, immigrants, and asylum seekers held in detention facilities, immigrants with criminal convictions, and immigrants who live in underserved areas. Several participants stressed the gaps in representation and legal information presentations for those in immigration detention.  Stacey Strongarone of the Vera Institute of Justice explained that only 1 to 2 % of immigration detainees are matched with any type of legal counsel through the Legal Orientation Program.  Various panelists stressed the importance of building on initiatives to develop a federal defender approach to counsel and/or advocating for government-funded models.

Multiple speakers – from law firms, government, and philanthropy – highlighted the need to devote significant funds for staff at local legal service providers.  Several noted that funding needs to be for multi-year periods. David Lash of O’Melveny and Myers LLP stressed that legal aid organizations need more capacity to screen and mentor cases, pointing out that law firms cannot do effective pro bono unless and until their non-profit partners have the funding to identify, screen, and mentor cases.

Throughout the symposium, participants identified programs, projects, and initiatives that could be expanded, replicated, and built upon to help address these gaps in legal representation.  Examples include Attorney General Harris’s stakeholder meetings focused on representation of children, a CHIRLA-coordinated working group focused on securing government-funded counsel, and strong legal representation projects like those at CARECEN, Esperanza, KIND, and Public Council.

The Honorable Robert Katzmann, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, delivered remarks by video. He shared information about the work of New York Immigrant Representation Study Group as well as news of recent developments in New York City. These include the New York City Council’s funding of a representation initiative aimed at family unity and the launch of the Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC), which provides legal fellows who enhance the capacity of legal providers. Leading lawyers in private practice, including William S. Freeman of Jones Day, Laura Wytsma of Loeb & Loeb, and Stacy Tolchin, described different models for engagement of pro bono attorneys.

The panelists and audience identified a number of next steps, including:

  • Increase data:  Gathering and publicizing data to inform efforts to address the gaps in representation and mapping particularly underserved areas.
  • Collaboration and engagement:  Continuing to work collaboratively, and stepping up collaborative efforts and coordination to address legal representation gaps. Engaging additional stakeholders such as tech companies, Los Angeles Unified School District, and celebrities who could bring greater attention to the need to address these challenges.  Several participants stressed the need to educate the public about this need, perhaps through the efforts of new voices.
  • Secure additional resources to increase representation:  Urging additional government support for counsel – from the federal government as well as within the state, building on the $3 million to be provided by the State of California.  And in particular, given the lack of government funded counsel, securing significant increases in private resources for non-profit legal organizations.  Funds need to be multi-year, and are critical to allow the necessary staff  increase for additional representation in-house and to increase the capacity of non-profits to mentor pro bono lawyers at law firms to take on some of these cases.  Other needs include social workers, mental health support, and translators.
  • Continue to step up Pro bono efforts:   Increase the number of immigrants represented by private pro bono lawyers, building on initiatives like AILA’s response to the detention of families in Artesia, New Mexico, O’Melveny & Myers’ bond representation project, and Jones Day’s deployment of pro bono attorneys to assist unaccompanied children and families at multiple locations around the country.
  • Tackle representation challenges for detained immigrants:  Expand the federally funded Legal Orientation Programs (LOPs) to serve all immigration detainees in California, including those being housed at the Santa Ana City Jail, Theo Lacy Detention Facility, and James A. Musick Detention Facility, to provide legal information before credible fear interviews, and support capacity to identify and refer cases for pro bono representation.  Redouble efforts to address representation gaps facing those in detention.
  • Address “notario fraud:” Step up efforts to educate the community and engage government and prosecutors to take steps to combat those who prey on immigrants.
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Published on September 26, 2014

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