Serving Immigrants Through Pro Bono in a Pandemic

[vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” background_animation=”none” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_column_text]As the pandemic and election results continue to headline newspapers and networks, pressing humanitarian issues remain at the Southern U.S.-Mexico border. In 2018, approximately 2,800 families were separated under the “zero-tolerance” policy. Separated children are treated by the immigration system as unaccompanied children[1] while their parents were deported awaiting their claims pending in the US. Although the family separation policy was rescindedagencies including the Office of Refugee Settlement (ORR), the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have failed to establish a successful reunification system.

Recent news reported that lawyers are unable to identify parents of 545 children, two-thirds of whom have already been deported to Central America. Although the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations have been trying to reunify these children with their families, language barriers, travel restrictions, and difficulties in reaching remote villages have hindered efforts. These difficulties are exacerbated due to the pandemic with containment measures across much of Central America.

Since the pandemic, certain immigration courts have begun resuming non-detained hearings. However, as of November 30, non-detained cases without an announced date are generally postponed through December 18, 2020, a date that has been repeatedly extended this year (and likely will continue to be pushed back). Also as of November 30, the current number of active court cases backlogged is 1,273,885, with cases that may not be heard until 2024. Also as of November 24, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reports that there are 16,614 individuals detained, including adults and juveniles, of whom 350 are currently under isolation or monitoring for COVID-19.[2] Data updated as of November 27 shows there have been 7,476COVID-19 positive cases among ICE detainees and 8 detainee deaths overall.[3] Freedom for Immigrants also provides a Detention Map that shows reports of COVID-19 cases and conditions in ICE detention. It’s dire. There have been reports of no social distancing, not enough hand sanitizer, and protective gear – or even medical staff and quarantine space in case of outbreaks.

Both recent policies and the pandemic have contributed to the tremendous need for pro bono legal assistance for immigrants in the United States, who are not appointed counsel in their immigration court proceedings (unlike criminal defendants). If your firm or legal department is interested in getting involved with pro bono work serving immigrants during COVID-19, there are many resources and opportunities for remote pro bono work available, including the following:

  • The American Bar Association’s national Immigration Justice Project (IJP) provides insurance and training for lawyers interested in getting involved. They are encouraging release work through bond and parole representation, which can help to limit or shorten detention, alleviating risk of contracting COVID-19. They are looking for individuals to collect sponsor documents and petition to ICE through mail and email. Bond requires appearance before a judge but there is a COVID-19 standing order for telephonic representation. To volunteer, click here.
  • Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition ensures equal justice for immigrant adult and children at risk of detention and deportation in Virginia and Maryland. During the pandemic, they are prioritizing certain services such as telephonic and video legal services, advocating for humanitarian release of detained immigrants through bond and parole, and working on ongoing legislation and advocacy efforts. They provide a mentorship program with CAIR Coalition attorneys supporting pro bono volunteers. To volunteer, click here.
  • South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) serves immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley border region with a particular focus on the legal needs of adults and unaccompanied children in federal custody. They are looking for individuals to write parole requests, start habeas cases, write appeals, represent clients, and/or research actual conditions of home countries. To volunteer, click here.
  • Children’s Immigration Law Academy (CILA) is a legal resource centered created by the ABA that provides training and resources to support individuals representing children in immigration-related proceedings. In Texas, they provide more technical assistance and Texas-specific resources. CILA’s Pro Bono Portal is a national platform with varying options to do pro bono work among the youth.
  • OneJustice provides skills, training, resources, and support to organizations to resolve legal problems for at-risk low-income people. Their Immigration Pro Bono Network provides a Training Calendar to connect attorneys, law students, and legal advocates to free immigration law trainings.
  • Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) has opportunities for volunteers to assist children in need of protection by taking on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) cases, filing asylum applications, representing children in hearings, and more. KIND has been working closely with separated families affected by the “zero-tolerance” policy. No immigration experience is necessary. KIND provides training, mentoring and resources to represent children.

These are some recent examples of firms and organizations engaging in immigration pro bono work.

  • PBI’s 2020 CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award recipients, Amazon**, in partnership with KIND, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP*, and Bet Tzedek, represent unaccompanied migrant children seeking to remain in the U.S. due to conditions in their home countries. They represent more than 28 immigrant children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in hopes of obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) or asylum. So far, they have successful obtained SIJS status for 19 children and are continuing to make progress in other cases.
  • Freddie Mac’s** pro bono program has worked with CAIR Coalition to obtain court orders for individuals and families granting asylum and/or special visa in immigration-related proceedings in Virginia. The pro bono team fought for immigrants from El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, and Honduras.
  • Kirkland & Ellis*, in partnership with Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG), has worked to provide pro bono counsel to immigrant families in need. Through Project Corazon, lawyers have been active in various levels of the immigration hearing process. Kirkland & Ellis has also provided immediate relief to families by advocating for asylum seekers in their credible fear interview (CFI), the first assessment of claims of immigrants seeking asylum in the US.
  • Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo*, in partnership with the Political Asylum Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project, has provided extensive immigration work representing asylum seekers and children classified as Special Immigrant Juveniles. In addition, Mintz filed and won a lawsuit on behalf of immigrants who were jailed due to flawed detention hearings.

Are you working on an immigration pro bono project? Let us know at

*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

**denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

Hat tip to PBI intern Emily Tran for drafting this blog. 

Interested in learning more about pro bono and immigration? Join us at PBI’s Annual Conference in March. Details coming soon!

[1] Unaccompanied children are screened and detained by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). If they pass certain conditions, they are placed under Human and Health Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)’s custody while their case is processed in immigration court. ORR manages the children until they can be released to family members or other individuals or organizations (sponsor).

[2] ICE’s Average Daily Population in 2019 was 50,165.

[3] Deaths include detainees who have died after testing positive for COVID-19 while in ICE custody; COVID-19 may not be the official cause.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]