This is the transcript of the year-end speech given by Immediate Past President Marketa Lindt during AILA’s Virtual Annual Conference on July 20, 2020. You can also watch the speech, part of the free recording of the conference kick-off; also take a look at the short year-in-review video featuring photos of AILA members in action.
When I stood before you in June of last year, on a stage in Orlando, Florida, I spoke of the challenges that we would be facing together. At that time, I spoke of the moment that we found ourselves in, then – a moment when immigration practice had never been more challenging, and when we were expecting another very difficult year for our clients and for ourselves as immigration lawyers.
At that time, when I addressed you as your brand new AILA President, I asked you, in preparation for the challenges ahead, to join me in stepping up to fight back, to work hard, to litigate, and to join your light together with that of your AILA colleagues so that together we would be a beacon of light and hope in the darkness.
And together we embarked on that year, plowing forward into the unknown, to face a year where we dealt with many challenges we knew we would face, and some that we could not possibly have anticipated.
At that time, we knew we would be facing continued and increased assaults on the rights of our clients, on our practices, and our system of due process. And sadly, we saw that play out.
Over the year, we saw the conditions in immigration court only worsen, with further deterioration at the border and detention, the “Remain in Mexico” program expanding, and ongoing efforts to dismantle our asylum system.
We saw the government implement new rules and policies to impose unprecedented barriers to legal immigration benefits, by creating a “wealth test” under the public charge rule, by imposing unworkable requirements for intending immigrants under the presidential health care proclamation, and by slowing the processing of applications for immigration benefits, through increasing inefficiency at the agency, and the addition of unnecessary bureaucratic steps and hurdles to immigration processes.
All of these unnecessary and cruel policies, together with the on-going scapegoating and blaming immigrants in the media, added to the atmosphere of xenophobia and fear in this country and undercut our ability as a country to continue to lead in innovation and compete economically.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, several months ago we got hit with a pandemic that has only grown in intensity and has affected all of our lives in so many ways. Each of us had to adapt our lives and our practices to this new reality. Many of us needed to shift our practices to working from home, while at the same time taking care of children and others. The immigration offices and courts became dangerous locations for both our members and our clients. As a result of the pandemic, many of us saw a lot of difficult changes in our practices this year and a decrease in business and revenue. We were faced with new and difficult decisions as lawyers, as employers, and as business people, to figure out how to operate successfully in an environment of uncertainly and stress that was new for all of us.
And sadly, we saw that the Administration seized on this extremely difficult time for our country, and the economic hardships and unemployment that resulted, as a political moment to push forward its anti-immigrant agenda. Most notably, we saw this in a series of presidential travel bans against immigrants, first against those processing for green cards from abroad and most recently against those seeking to enter as H-1Bs, L-1s and other types of visa categories.
But you don’t need me to describe to you how the world of an immigration lawyer changed over the past year. Because we all lived it and saw it unfold around us. Every single day.
But we didn’t just sit there and watch it unfold. As an association of lawyers, and community of colleagues, we stood up, we adapted, we pivoted, and we fought as hard we could on behalf of our clients, our practices, and our legal system.
And in the face of these extraordinary times, we accomplished some truly extraordinary things.
AILA’s government relations and liaison team – our staff and the many committee volunteers – worked tirelessly to help us be better, more effective immigration lawyers during these difficult days. AILA put out close to 200 practice alerts to help our members navigate the changing landscape. We filed more than 20 comments in response to regulatory proposals and forms. Despite the increased difficulty of liaison in this environment, AILA helped shape the development of this year’s new electronic H-1B registration process.
And as the pandemic began to impact our ability to practice law, AILA communicated with the agencies to seek reasonable accommodations including successfully requesting the ability to file petitions with scanned signatures, to obtain extensions for RFE deadlines, and to advocate for the safety of our clients and our members who continued, for too long, to be required to put their health at risk by appearing at unsafe facilities during a pandemic.
In recognition of our expertise, over the past year AILA was invited a number of times to testify on Capitol Hill. We testified regarding the inhumane conditions and due process violations on the Southern border. We testified on the Hill for the need for an independent immigration court – and we are optimistic that a model court bill will be introduced in 2020.
I had the opportunity to testify on the Hill regarding USCIS inefficiency and the unnecessary impediments that contribute to the delays in processing of immigration benefits, after which AILA was instrumental in introducing a USCIS accountability bill in the House. The fact that my testimony flashed up on the screen of a John Oliver show on immigration will probably always rank up there as a career highlight, and is the one thing that gained me some true credibility with my teenage kids.
Finally, one experience over the past year that I will never forget is leading an AILA delegation to Brownsville, Texas, to observe the tent courts at the border and to visit the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. I will never forget that experience, bearing witness and seeing adults and small children who came to our country seeking protection, living in a massive tent camp, in dangerous and subhuman conditions, as a direct result of our government’s inhumane policies. I will never forget seeing the obstacles imposed to restrict access to counsel and due process for the immigrants trying to navigate through the tent court system. But I also remember seeing the unbelievable and inspiring work of our AILA colleagues who practice on the border day in day out. What I saw and experienced during that trip to the border, is a source of resolve and inspiration to me that I have tapped into numerous times since that trip, and that I will carry with me for the rest of my days.
To complement our important policy work, throughout the year, our communications team continued to fight not only against the misinformation about immigration in the media, but also to change the narrative of the public debate in these difficult times. AILA worked with a wide array of news outlets to amplify our critical policy issues, including extensive work with MSNBC on its award-winning reporting on child separation and detention issues, the Washington Post in its coverage of AILA’s southern border delegations, and many more, providing important information, placing op-eds, and helping our members serve as a stronger and louder voice of information and perspective in the media.
In addition to educating the media and public, one of AILA’s most important functions as a bar association has always been to provide education to our members, to make us better lawyers and to raise the bar of our profession. AILA is the undisputed leader in providing in-person content through our conferences.
To supplement that, this year we rolled out AILA University, a set of on-line eLearning resources, including courses on immigration fundamentals, removal defense, PERM, as well as a paralegal course and “Spanish for Lawyers.” And of course, this year, out of necessity, we unexpectedly found ourselves launching our first Virtual Annual Conference, providing not only opportunities for us to learn together but also to network and support each other on a brand new on-line platform.
Another area where our work has never been more important that this past year has been in supporting our members’ in practice management, helping us be better business people in managing our offices, our processes and our clients.
I think it’s true to say that the pandemic threw many of our members’ practices into a tailspin. In response, almost overnight, AILA developed a stable of resources to help members evolve their practices to best adapt to the situation, including on important topics such as practical solutions to transition to working from home, return to work issues, and other new management, liability and ethical issues suddenly arising for our members. AILA developed resources to help our members navigate the very confusing and often frustrating process to apply for PPP and other disaster relief loans. And AILA developed wellness resources to help members manage their own wellbeing in a most difficult time.
These resources were developed through the tireless efforts of our staff and many, many AILA volunteers who stepped up to write articles, record videos, and otherwise share their knowledge and experience with their fellow AILA members. Many of you used these resources, and we continue to ask for your input on developing additional material as we continue to face additional challenges.
And finally, I would like to say a few words about a very important area that I’m especially proud of, which is AILA’s incredible work over the past year in litigation. Seeing AILA increase its litigation capabilities as a tool to help our members be more successful and to effect change is something about which I have always been passionate.
Of course, AILA lawyers have always litigated, individually and together with the American Immigration Council. But in this environment, where the administration is actively seeking to impose overreaching, destructive rules and policies, litigation is an essential tool to protect our clients and our practices.
Over the past few years, AILA has established a very active and successful litigation task force, composed of AILA members who are litigators and thought leaders, to drive our litigation efforts forward.
But this year, for the first time, as many of you know, AILA established a litigation department and hired its first ever staff litigator to work with AILA’s litigation task force to support AILA members in challenging agency denials in federal court and to file impact litigation to challenge the government’s overreaching practices, policies and regulations.
And, although our litigation department has only been in existence for 10 months, AILA has racked up a remarkable series of litigation efforts and wins.
Together with our organizational and pro bono partners, AILA filed a lawsuit challenging the implementation of the public charge rule, and recently has filed another challenge to the public charge policy manual and form.
Together with the Council, AILA filed a class action challenging the agency’s misinterpretations of the specialty occupation criteria for H-1Bs.
AILA obtained a national injunction of the presidential proclamation requiring healthcare insurance for immigrants.
AILA filed a class action against the April immigrant proclamation that already has resulted in the exemption for age-out children.
Also, due to our litigation efforts, the language of the age-out exemption actually was incorporated in the subsequent nonimmigrant presidential proclamation in June, protecting aging out kids from that subsequent ban.
And most recently, actually just this past Friday, AILA, with its litigation partners, amended its complaint challenging the April immigrant ban to also include the June nonimmigrant ban, effectively mounting a challenge to both presidential proclamations.
We are very excited about AILA’s litigation work and will keep the membership posted on developments.
But the thing that I want to stress about the importance of AILA’s litigation efforts in challenging these terrible rules and policies is not just the “wins.” Don’t get me wrong – litigation wins are of course critical victories in establishing a check on the government’s overreaching and sometimes illegal initiatives. The recent Supreme Court victory in the DACA case, and the impact of that decision on so many people’s lives, illustrates the importance of prevailing in litigation. And we need to win in key cases for litigation to change the legal landscape.
But it’s not just about the wins. Litigation is also crucial in giving those most affected by the impact of these policies – the immigrants, their families, their employers – a chance for their voices to be heard.
It’s about using litigation as a mechanism shine a light on the impact of these polices and, through the media coverage, to educate the public and policy makers.
And it’s about giving us, as practitioners, hope and inspiration that we are not backing down but will continue to fight the good fight.
And, as we have seen, AILA’s litigation efforts as an organization have given our members support and inspiration to take their own denied to cases to federal court and, very often, prevail.
AILA’s litigation work has begun to change the mindset of our membership that litigation works, for our clients and for our mission. In the short time that AILA has been litigating, it has really been amazing to see this effort drive forward and become the force that it has in changing the legal landscape in our field.
And throughout this past year, as AILA President, I had the privilege of being part of and seeing all of these efforts from a unique vantage point. These efforts were driven and carried out together by the incredible staff at AILA National, together with AILA leadership, the Board, committee leaders and volunteers. And I want to thank all of you for your incredible contributions and work this year.
But first and foremost, I want to say that I am incredibly grateful for the support of my family – my husband Tom, my kids Carter and Chloe – I love you and thank you for support and patience and encouragement this year.
And thank you to my firm, Sidley Austin, my partner Tim Payne, and the rest of our fantastic team of lawyers, paralegals, secretaries and other staff for your support of my AILA work.
To Ben and the AILA national staff – you are truly an amazing group of professionals and I wish I had time to recognize you all individually before the AILA membership. You work hand in hand on a daily basis with the leadership team, and the accomplishments I have just described could not have happened without your vision, your passion, your patience, your incredible hard work, and your unwavering commitment to AILA and our members and our mission. This year has been an especially trying one for all of us – what we have asked of you and what you have delivered is nothing short of incredible, and you make us all very proud.
To my colleagues on ExCom and on the Board of Governors – I cannot even begin to describe the incredible range of talent and passion that you bring to AILA leadership, and the inspiration and energy that you have brought the organization in this critical year. We have a very strong Board heading into this critical year and an amazing team on ExCom led by your new President, Jennifer Minear. ExCom and Board members – you know how hard and how closely we all worked together this year – and I thank you for your teamwork, collegiality and friendship from the bottom of my heart. If we must be in a battle, I cannot imagine a better group to have been in the trenches with for this year, and in the future.
To all of the AILA committee leadership and volunteers – there are hundreds of you who play a key and critical role carrying out AILA’s work. You were a critical part of the team that made it all happen and I sincerely thank you for all your work and your service.
As many challenges and surprises we have seen this year, the constant has been the amazing teamwork, collaboration, and support that we have been able to give each other within AILA. I have seen countless examples of the way that our members have helped each other, in big ways and small ways, even as we all were dealing with our own struggles through these uncertain and sometimes scary times.
Everything that happened in this very eventful year only strengthened my view that AILA is indeed a very special community. In times of the utmost difficulty and strife, we were supportive, resourceful, creative and strong. Certainly these times will change us, but I have no doubt that we will come out even stronger.
Finally, I just want to say that this past year, we knew a lot would be at stake and that we would need to dig deep and fight hard for our clients and for ourselves, as immigration lawyers. But as we reflect on the past year, and look toward the future, we all fundamentally know that it goes deeper than that.
Because we know that this year the battle that we have been fighting was bigger than us. This is not just a fight for immigrant clients, or for immigration lawyers. Our fight is a battle for the very values that our country was founded on.
We are fighting for our system of due process and checks and balances to protect our fundamental values and rights, for the vulnerable, and for all of us.
We are fighting for a land of opportunity that is not just for the wealthy, or for people from specific places or of certain ethnicities, but for all of us – a place where even when things look dark and cold, it is a place of hope and a beacon of light.
So to everyone in AILA – thank you. Because the light that you collectively brought to the work that we did this year, in so many ways, that light created the warmth and lit the way even when sometimes it seemed that it was too cold and too dark to go on.
Thank you for giving me this amazing opportunity to serve with all of you, and please, continue to shine your light of hope as we all continue to move forward together.