1.9 million and counting: An Immigration Update & Pro Bono Opportunities

By Noor Khan, PBI Intern

In the fiscal year 2022, there were 1,917,464 active immigration court cases backlogged in the United States, the largest in this country’s history.  This backlog includes most of the new deportation cases of 2022 (in the first two months of 2022 alone there were 310,658  proceedings filed in the United States). Through a combination of immigration court closures, shutdowns of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices, and the implementation of Title 42 which permits expulsion of many asylum seekers to Mexico, many of these cases can be attributed to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Immigration case backlogs leave individuals in a state of uncertainty for years, with ramifications for themselves, their families, and the U.S. immigration system at large. This country’s immigration dilemma has dire implications for asylum seekers, immigrants residing in the U.S., and immigrants abroad. Lengthy waits for immigration court hearings leave vulnerable groups unprotected and those ineligible for asylum knowing their case is years off. Many immigrants in the United States have been forced out of their jobs (despite a national labor shortage) due to delays in the approval of work authorization documents. Migrants waiting abroad for interviews continue to be separated by their family based in the U.S and face the loss of job and educational opportunities.

As The PBEye covered in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated backlogs and bottlenecks within the immigration system. The pandemic also posed another obstacle for immigrants when the Center for Disease Control (CDC) implemented U.S. health law- section 265 of Title 42. Due to the pandemic, the CDC recommended that the number of migrants allowed into the country be limited. Consequently as of March 2020, Title 42 has been in effect, allowing for the immediate expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers at U.S borders, used to expel migrants more than 1.9 million times. Despite CDC announcement on April 1st, 2022 that “an Order suspending the right to introduce migrants into the United States is no longer necessary,” Title 42 remains in place pursuant to a court order blocking the policy’s termination.

The past two-plus years have been a difficult time for everyone, but the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted migrants and those involved in the immigration process. Further proven by the 2022 PBI Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge Report, where 95.8%  of the firms surveyed stated they provided COVID-19 related services in the past year.

In addition to those difficulties, in the United States immigrants do not have access to appointed counsel. Because deportation is technically a civil sanction, immigrants are not given constitutional protections under the Sixth Amendment (unlike defendants in the criminal legal process). Both the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. policies have added to the critical need for pro bono legal assistance for immigrants in the United States.

Given this situation, there are many ways to get involved in immigration pro bono work.  Here are some recent examples:

Kirkland & Ellis*, in partnership with Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG), has worked to provide pro bono counsel to immigrant families in need. In their partnership, the two groups coordinate a pro bono legal effort to help Ukrainian refugees in the U.S. as they seek temporary protected status (TPS), an immigration status that allows them to stay in the country until at least October 2023. Over 2,200 pro bono lawyers have been matched with Ukrainian refugees as they apply for TPS.

Amazon** attorneys in partnership with DLA Piper* and PILnet is leading a pro bono humanitarian initiative. The three groups work to provide free, comprehensive, legal guidebooks for refugees in Europe looking to seek asylum. The guidebooks provide information on how to apply for permits, find housing, access mental and child services, and answer legal questions.

The Political Asylum/Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project presented the 2022 Pro Bono Detention award to Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy. The firm was recognized for its work ensuring detained asylum-seekers receive counsel before immigration court, and for assisting immigrants transferred from southern border ICE facilities to the New England region. Fragomen is also partnered with New York City Bar’s Immigrant Justice Project and the Safe Passage Project in New York City to help immigrant children and asylum seekers through matching them with pro bono attorneys and providing guidance throughout representation.

Jenner & Block* have devoted thousands of hours to asylum, immigration, and trafficking matters. They are working with 50 lawyers across Jenner & Block, as well as an immigration firm in the U.K., to assist nearly 30 human rights defenders trapped in Afghanistan. The firm has also had a recent success in a life-saving result in a pro bono asylum case. The team represented a Nicaraguan political activist and local opposition party official and her 14-year-old daughter. The judge granted both clients asylum, with the government waiving appeal.

If your firm or legal department is interested in pro bono work serving immigrants during COVID-19, there are many resources and opportunities for remote pro bono work, including the following:

The American Bar Association (ABA) launched a pro bono pilot, the Immigration Justice Project (IJP). The IJP aims to increase access to counsel for immigrants and offer legal representation that produces  more fair, efficient, accurate, and consistent results. The IJP trains and mentors volunteer attorneys to aid both detained and non-detained immigrants to increase access to justice for indigent immigrants. To volunteer, click here.

The Immigration Justice Campaign, connects a network of pro bono allies to serve detained immigrants who would otherwise have no legal representation. The Immigration Justice Campaign provides volunteers with training, tools, and resources to help break down policies that dehumanize and harm immigrant communities. To volunteer, click here.

The Children’s Immigration Law Academy (CILA) is a legal resource center created by the American Bar Association (ABA) to provide advocates for children as they go through complex legal procedures. CILA serves in the nonprofit and pro bono legal sector to advance the rights of immigrant youth seeking protection through training and collaboration. To volunteer, click here.

The South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) offers immigrants legal education, access to representation, and connections to different legal services. ProBAR serves immigrants that are in the Rio Grande Valley border region, focusing on aiding the legal needs of adults and unaccompanied children detained or in federal custody. For more information, click here.

Are you working on immigration pro bono matters?  Tell The PBEye about it at pbi@probonoinst.org.