This blog post is adapted from a speech given by outgoing AILA President Anastasia Tonello at the AILA Annual Conference, June 20, 2019.
It has been an absolute privilege and honor as well as just a little bit crazy to serve AILA as president this year. When I started this journey as secretary we had a very different administration. This year has been a challenge but we made it through due in no small part to the AILA members who make what we do as an association so important and so fulfilling.
Six years ago when I started this journey, my focus was on how we could best improve our educational offerings for AILA members, how we could best use technology to ensure our relevance and stay competitive and how we could strengthen the national/chapter partnership to support our chapter leaders and chapter members. I am thrilled by what we have been able to achieve!
Last year, when I was installed as president of AILA, in San Francisco, I recounted the personal stories of real people, real men, women and children who have been failed by our immigration laws and policies. I shared my own personal background growing up in a blue collar family in Indiana and my experience seeing my family, all who are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, turn to isolationist rhetoric.
I recounted the numerous bricks being used by this administration to build the invisible wall – the invisible wall being built by executive overreach, by restrictive policies, by shutting off discretion, by eliminating due process, by preventing American employers from being able to fill key positions, by holding children hostage, by turning our back on our international obligations and by strong arming and illegally coercing local and state law enforcement.
Last year, at our annual conference in San Francisco, we had a Congress that refused to hold the President and his administration accountable for their abuses; a Congress that was complicit in executive overreach and its revocation of our nation’s immigration laws. Congress had failed to check the president and uphold its constitutional duty.
Unable to count on Congress, we looked to the courts to stand up to this administration’s attack on immigration and the rule of law. And we have seen time and time again that the federal courts and federal judges, republican and democratic appointees alike, are our shield against tyranny.
At our annual conference in June last year, I called AILA members to action. Action to dismantle the invisible wall using our legal skills and expertise in immigration law. The lawyers of this association were called to take action and to challenge the administration in court. To protect the rule of law to save our democracy, to save our country. And you answered. You acted as we lawyers are trained to act. In the courts. You sued. You sued in Federal Court forcing and demanding a check on executive abuses.
As the now-past-president of this association, I am so proud of what the members of AILA accomplished in this last twelve months.
With the support of our partner, the American Immigration Council, under the Council’s program to support business immigration attorneys to file suit to challenge unlawful agency denials of employment-based petitions, AILA members sued USCIS again and again. You sued when USCIS denied an H-1B petition for an entry level position, ignoring the fact that the H-1B statute defines a specialty occupation by reference to the education required to enter the occupation – not the level within an organization; you sued when USCIS disregarded substantial evidence in an H-1B petition that an employer requires bachelor’s or higher degrees in a “specific specialty” as provided in the regulations; and you sued when so capricious and unwarranted was USCIS’s denial of an H-1B extension or its misreading of the OOH when denying an H-1B petition, that USCIS didn’t even respond to the filing. It did what it should have done initially and reopened and approved the petitions. And in the last year when USCIS issued the “Accrual of Unlawful Presence and F, J, and M Nonimmigrants” memo overturning 21 years of consistently enforced policy without notice and comment rule making as required under the APA, AILA members sued in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Not only was the government’s motion to dismiss rejected, the judge’s decision enjoined implementation of the memo and granted a nationwide injunction.
AILA members who focus on employment based immigration and who are by and large more comfortable advising on compliance not litigation are moving out of our comfort zones. According to the Council, in the last three months alone more than 70 business immigration attorneys used the Council’s technical assistance for litigation related strategies. Business Immigration practitioners are answering the call to hold this administration accountable.
And AILA members who specialize in ligation are also answering the call by mentoring, sharing expertise and sponsoring your colleagues for admission to district courts. Our Amicus committee is providing technical expertise in briefs submitted to federal circuit courts, the BIA, the Supreme Court and the Attorney General himself.
Just as the administration is building the invisible wall brick by brick. AILA members through the federal courts are taking down the wall, brick by brick. Through our suits, through even threatening to sue, we are holding USCIS accountable. And we are winning.
Now, I have to tell you, I am one of those employment based immigration attorneys who is more comfortable advising on compliance and processes. But I too am called to take action and I’m very proud to announce that on September 3, I will be admitted to the Southern District of New York.
And let’s not forget we are also building bridges. Last year at my installation, I called upon AILA lawyers to build bridges using our skills and expertise. And bridges we built.
AILA members are building bridges with liaison. Even in these challenging times, with ongoing dedication and commitment we continue to have local and national liaison in both informal and formal channels. We need each other.
We are also building bridges with Congress. Revitalized, the 116th Congress is leading oversight of the administration. Working with our national office in DC and our chapters on the local level congressional leaders look to AILA for resources, knowledge, and support. Earlier this year, when AILA published a policy brief on USCIS’s unprecedented processing delays with deep analysis of USCIS data, in less than two weeks, this policy brief was cited by more than 80 members of Congress in an official letter to then USCIS Director Cissna demanding answers.
We are building bridges with facts. In the last year, AILA members made tens of thousands of appearances in the media. From sparring on Fox News to the local paper op-ed or quote of an AILA member in private practice, AILA members answered the call. We were heard and seen in print media, on network and cable, and on social media. If the president can use Twitter, we can too. @AILAnational on Twitter and AILA on Facebook each have more than 25,000 followers; our chapters, leaders and members are active users and influencers. We are building bridges within our profession offering our members more ways to engage with AILA. And we are reaching a wider audience than ever before.
We are building bridges with technology. In April AILA hosted an inaugural technology summit at the national office in DC. Organized by the Technology Task Force which I appointed earlier this year, lawyers in private practice, representatives from non-profits, legal technologists, government officials and officers, entrepreneurs, and software developers gathered for a day of collaboration and discussion to understand what is happening in the field, what still needs to be done and how we can work together to prepare and create changes and advancements for those who practice immigration law. The technology summit was the first foray into exploring, recommending and creating solutions for AILA lawyers so that we can prepare AILA attorneys for the changes coming to our profession to harness and use artificial intelligence to improve our practices, make us more efficient and more profitable.
We are building bridges by educating AILA members in new innovative and collaborative ways. In the last year AILA National held 14 in person conferences with over 5,400 attendees and 50 audio/web seminars with over 3,700 attendees; we entered into conference partnerships with outside organizations and AILA chapters broadening our reach and supporting our chapter leaders. In April we launched the AILA law journal, the first of its kind and benefit for members providing a uniquely academic platform for AILA members to develop, publish and critique insightful articles about immigration law and policy from diverse and authoritative experts in our field. AILA launched three online on demand courses, and in November, we will launch AILA University – a multi-media online/on demand video learning platform. This and other developments in our educational offerings have been one of my passions. AILA is providing more educational opportunities for members who show the public, immigrant communities, and this administration that we know the law, that we will call out abuses and demand accountability.
AILA is building bridges for, by and with our members. We are more than a bar association. Our mission is to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members. We are living true to our mission. And further, we are not resting on our laurels. Our accomplishments in the last year are testament to the continued dedication, focus and development of our members and the critical work that we do. And the 15,000 members of AILA through their work, commitment to the rule of law, elevation of the practice and dedication to your clients, future Americans, in the courts, in liaison, in the media, with Congress and in our practices show that we are the experts in immigration law; that we will demand due process; we will use our expertise and will call out an agency director, political appointee, career officer and even the president himself who acts unilaterally and without authority.
It has been an honor to serve as president of this association. Thank you for this opportunity to share my vision with you, to lead this association of 15,000 strong, smart immigration lawyers as we build bridges and dismantle, no destroy, bulldoze – annihilate that invisible wall. Thank you.