Earlier this year, a young man called James* fled his country of origin after enduring yet another attack on his life, this time at the hands of his family members who learned he was gay. They also reported James to the police, who began searching for him because, under a law outlawing homosexuality, the authorities viewed him as the culprit rather than the victim of an unjustified attack. The writing was on the wall: if James stayed, he would surely meet the fate of his late boyfriend, who lost his life a few years before to similar senseless cruelty.
James fled, seeking refuge in the United States, only to be taken into custody and detained as an arriving alien. Indigent and alone, the deck was firmly stacked against him. Indeed, for James and the tens of thousands of immigrants like him who are detained pending their removal proceedings, any chance to access legal counsel drops precipitously and, with it, the likelihood of prevailing on the merits of their cases.
And even if James had the good fortune of obtaining pro bono counsel to represent him, what about Roger*, Victor*, and Glen*, three other gay men detained at the same facility, who also fled persecution in their countries of origin on account of their sexual orientation? How would they find counsel? How would they surmount the overwhelming odds facing indigent asylum seekers held in custody and give themselves a fighting chance to claim asylum?
Enter the Immigration Justice Campaign, through which pro bono counsel was secured not only for James, but also for three other men with similar LGBT-based asylum claims. A joint initiative between AILA and the American Immigration Council, the Justice Campaign is testing new and innovative ways of scaling up pro bono representation for immigrants detained pending their removal proceedings.
One of the key ways that the Justice Campaign is striving to increase capacity for pro bono representation is partnering with initiatives like the American Immigrant Representation Project (AIRP). AIRP was founded earlier this year to harness the outpouring of energy and goodwill from attorneys nationwide as immigrants began to face even more difficult policies from a new administration. AIRP encourages law firms to increase their commitment to pro bono work and lean into some of the hardest cases that traditionally evade pro bono placement: detained removal defense cases. Through AIRP, law firms are encouraged not to take just one case, but potentially two or three similarly-situated cases that enable their in-house teams to share resources and maximize their impact. Thus, when we learned that James needed assistance, AIRP was able to use that opportunity to recruit three additional pro bono teams to represent Roger, Victor, and Glen as well.
But as AILA members are singularly aware, it is not enough to find talented and dedicated pro bono counsel. Immigration law is exceedingly complex, and immigration practice and procedure can be bewildering to newcomers. Volunteers need mentors. The Justice Campaign is rising to this challenge by piloting an innovative group mentorship model that seeks to reduce the time commitment required for traditional mentorship while enabling experienced removal defense practitioners to reach more pro bono attorneys.
What does that look like in practice? For the volunteers representing James, Roger, Victor, and Glen, because their cases are similarly situated, they participate in group conference calls with their AILA mentor every few weeks, where they receive guidance and tips on representation and share information with each other about the status of their cases. In between the group mentorship calls, the pro bono attorneys can contact a Justice Campaign Technical Assistance Attorney, who is on call to answer questions and concerns as they arise for the pro bono volunteers.
Through this combination of efforts—new recruitment partnerships and rethinking how we support pro bono work—the Justice Campaign hopes to touch more lives, to think more ambitiously about pro bono work, and to empower volunteers to venture into new pro bono territory.
It is early days yet for James and his asylum case, but studies show that having an attorney on his side could make all the difference, making him up to ten times as likely to prevail. In this case and in so many others, pro bono counsel can literally save a life. In the coming months, we’ll keep you updated on opportunities to plug in and leverage legal expertise to give immigrants access to justice and a fighting chance to claim asylum.
*names have been changed