Excerpted From: Jojo Annobil and Elizabeth Gibson, Improving Lawyers & Lives: How Immigrant Justice Corps Built a Model for Quality Representation While Empowering Recent Law School and College Graduates and the Immigrant Communities Whom They Serve, 92 Fordham Law Review 823 (December 2023) (253 Footnotes) (Full Document)


Annobil-Gibson.jpegThe United States is facing a growing representation crisis. Approximately 10.5 million undocumented immigrants are at risk of arrest, detention, and deportation. Enforcement is often harsh, and policies are frequently inequitable. There are more than 2.5 million cases pending in immigration court as of July 2023--up more than 300 percent from October 2017 each day there are approximately 30,000 noncitizens held in detention centers and local jails in the United States. In fiscal year 2019, the last year before the government began expelling people under separate COVID-19 pandemic-era measures, the government deported approximately 267,000 people.

Most immigrants facing removal do not have counsel. Currently, about a million people with pending cases are facing immigration court without a lawyer or accredited representative. Since deportation is a civil proceeding, immigrants have no right to government-appointed counsel, even though highly trained attorneys represent the government in all proceedings to remove them from the United States. Accessing quality and affordable legal services can be nearly impossible because there are few free legal services providers. This is exacerbated by the growing backlog, which means that even as the number of people represented has modestly increased, the percentage of people represented has gone down. A majority of those facing removal tend to have lower economic statuses and cannot afford to pay attorneys. There also are not enough attorneys in private practice with expertise in the complex and specialized field of immigration law to meet demand. Private immigration lawyers often charge high fees, and fraudulent providers, frequently referred to as notarios, pose a growing problem. Even those who manage to pay an attorney may not benefit from it given the poor quality of available representation provided by the private immigration bar. Indeed, New York immigration judges ranked nearly half of the private practice lawyers appearing before them as “inadequate” or “grossly inadequate.”

The late Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit formed a study group in 2008 called the Study Group on Immigrant Representation to assess the scope of the problem and find a solution. The study group determined that the representation crisis was an issue “of both quality and quantity” and that the two most important variables for a successful outcome in a case were having counsel and not being detained. To address this need, the study group established two innovative programs: the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), the first public defender program to provide universal representation to detained New Yorkers; and Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC), the first and only fellowship program exclusively dedicated to increasing representation to low-income immigrants and improving the immigration bar.

IJC, launched in 2014, recruits, trains, and mentors talented Justice Fellows (recent law graduates and law clerks) and exceptional Community Fellows (college graduates who become federally accredited legal representatives). IJC then deploys the Justice and Community Fellows (together, the “Fellows”) in the immigration field to assist low-income immigrants in defending against deportation, seeking lawful status, or applying for citizenship. The Fellows--the great majority of whom are bilingual or multilingual with lived experience of the immigration system--come from top law schools and colleges, and many have developed litigation skills in their schools' immigration clinics, giving them a head start in mastering the law.

This Essay focuses on the work of IJC and discusses Judge Katzmann and the Study Group on Immigrant Representation's efforts to find solutions to the representation crisis by developing innovative programs and tackling challenges along the way. Part I of this Essay discusses the context of the immigration crisis before 2014, the visionary idea for IJC, and the building of the structured fellowship program with philanthropic assistance. Part II of the Essay discusses launching IJC, the inaugural class, host organization partners, significant outcomes, lessons learned, and efforts to expand and replicate the corps nationwide. Part III discusses IJC's ongoing push to build momentum toward universal representation and unlocking government funding to ensure justice for all.

[. . .]

What a difference nine years makes. IJC has gone from an idea to an inaugural class of 35 Justice and Community Fellows in 2014 to an incoming class of more than 80 talented Justice Fellows in 2023. What IJC has done has been transformational--providing quality legal counsel for some 100,000 immigrants and their families, with a 93 percent success rate for cases adjudicated in 2023. Legal status is the gateway to lifting immigrants out of poverty so they can fully and openly participate in the American Dream. IJC has importantly contributed to that effort by infusing the immigration bar with dedicated lawyers and advocates and, in so doing, has afforded economic opportunity for immigrants while growing the next generation of immigration lawyers, advocates, and policy makers.

Achieving universal representation, shrinking the deportation machine, and eliminating detention will require well-trained lawyers, accredited representatives, nonlawyers, and social workers. Thanks to the bold vision of the late Judge Katzmann, of the Second Circuit, IJC has developed the blueprint for building capacity to achieve universal representation. There are still many challenges to tackle, but we will keep pushing forward to advance that vision. As Judge Katzmann said, “[w]hen you help someone in legal need, when you serve the ideals of fairness and justice for all, you can make all the difference, a tangible difference for that client, that client's family.”

Jojo Annobil is the Executive Director of Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC).

Elizabeth Gibson is Managing Attorney for Capacity Building and Mentorship with the Detention Project of the National Immigrant Justice Center as well as an IJC alumna.