Guest Blog: Attorneys, Advocates, and Law Students Collaborate with Appleseed to Reimagine U.S. Immigration Courts

By Betsy Cavendish, Appleseed, and Malcolm Rich and Katy Welter, Chicago Appleseed

Collaborating across firms, disciplines, and cities, a team of attorneys, advocates, and law students evaluated the federal Immigration Court system and recently released its findings in “Reimagining the Immigration Court Assembly Line:  Transformative Change for the Immigration Justice System.”  The report is the product of a model approach to pro bono advocacy efforts, and work to implement its reforms has already begun. 

“Reimagining the Immigration Court Assembly Line” grades the U.S. Immigration Court system’s response to recommendations from the team’s 2009 “Assembly Line Injustice” report. Pro bono attorney teams from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP*† and Latham & Watkins LLP*† partnered with Appleseed’s flagship office and affiliate Chicago Appleseed on both investigations. The 2009 report detailed a number of failings in the Immigration Court process, and true to the Appleseed model, proposed realistic, achievable recommendations for reform.

Soon after the 2009 report’s release, its lead author, Steven Schulman, pro bono partner at Akin Gump, began planning a follow-up as part of its outreach to persuade Obama administration officials to adopt policies in line with the recommendations.  The report gave tough grades – no A’s, lots of C’s, and even an F – but Schulman complimented the administration both on achieving some progress and being open with pro bono counsel:

“The cooperation and [openness] from the administration was really exemplary. Especially the Executive Office for Immigration Review, but the Department of Homeland Security, too, was more open than in the past.”

Both Appleseed and Chicago Appleseed are dedicated to achieving upstream, systemic changes to make our justice system fair to all. Pro bono lawyers contributed nearly all of the research. Latham & Watkins dedicated more than 900 hours over the past year, and this year alone, Akin Gump’s lawyers have devoted nearly 400 pro bono hours. A member of the Appleseed Board of Directors and an immigration law expert, Schulman was also the lead author of the most recent report.

The project was an ideal pro bono opportunity for both firms.  Deadlines were somewhat flexible, making the large project manageable internally, and it was inspiring to a number of volunteers to be able to work on a project that could impact tens to hundreds of thousands of cases.

“Many of our attorneys work on immigration cases.  It’s rewarding to take the collective wisdom – as well as frustration – of the firm’s attorneys and our allies and translate it into calls for systemic reforms,” Schulman said.  “Akin Gump also has a robust government affairs practice.  It’s great to use our expertise in government operations for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of immigrants.”

Latham & Watkins Associate Matthew Cronin remarked:

The Appleseed project allowed junior attorneys at the firms to get a lot of substantive experience in court proceedings and to look at the law from a different perspective. Attorneys normally analyze the law through the lens of litigation.   With Appleseed, we look at what the policy should be, rather than just the precedent and rules of evidence.  It is a different type of advocacy that focuses on systemic rather than individual considerations.  Given political and economic realities, we proposed feasible changes to enhance the justice, efficiency, and legitimacy of the immigration courts. 

The project provided leadership opportunities for Cronin and one-of-a-kind experiences for a group of law students as well.  Cronin coordinated with George Washington University Law School Dean of Public Interest and Public Service Law David Johnson to lead a short-term legal clinic specifically for this project. As part of the clinic, GW Law students conducted dozens of court observations, which provided the researchers with perspective on the current system and made a powerful contribution to the report.

The team is already celebrating major policy changes recommended in both the 2009 and 2012 efforts.  Less than one month after the 2012 report release, the Department of Homeland Security announced a policy lifting the threat of deportation for two years for certain young immigrants. The Appleseed team applauded the change and raised the grade on one section of the report.  The team will focus on local and efficient implementation of such policies as it accelerates its advocacy phase. However, both Schulman and Cronin noted that federal policy promises aren’t always implemented locally in the intended way or time frame.

Appleseed and Chicago Appleseed both hold as a core belief that civically-engaged pro bono lawyers play a powerful watchdog function and can help bridge the gap between policy and practice.