By: Ann Atalla*
National Pro Bono Week has arrived, and there is no better time to focus on lending a helping hand to immigrants who cannot afford legal representation. With all of the news coverage this October about the ailing economy, it goes without saying that our immigrant population suffers with the rest of the country. In fiscal year 2009, the Department of Justice calculated that up to 61% of immigrants in deportation proceedings could not afford legal representation before the nation’s immigration courts, and 23% were left to their own devices before the Board of Immigration Appeals. Thankfully, CLINIC has ample opportunities to assist this population and work on reducing these bleak statistics.
CLINIC’s longest-running pro bono endeavor, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) Pro Bono Project, is approaching its ten-year anniversary. This project works to increase the level of pro bono representation to immigrants who are without representation before the BIA. The project’s priority is to assist detained, unrepresented individuals with cases being appealed. However, it also assists non-detained, indigent, unrepresented individuals with cases before the BIA.
The BIA Pro Bono Project assists approximately 60 to 70 clients a year. All of the individuals in the project are in deportation proceedings. Some of the recent cases from the past year have included an 80-year old Mexican man who was about to be deported and had Alzheimer’s disease and severe arthritis that left him wheelchair-bound; a Cuban citizen who obtained relief under the Convention Against Torture after enduring imprisonment, brainwashing sessions, and other severe abuse due to his political activism; and a Tutsi from Burundi who had been granted relief from deportation after an a knife attack by Hutu rebels that left him partially blinded.
The success of this project is due primarily to the dedication of the more than 400 attorneys who have volunteered to take cases, and the 25 law school clinics that have worked with CLINIC over the past decade. Represented persons are more likely to succeed in their claims to relief from deportation than unrepresented individuals. Few detention centers provide the immigration legal materials necessary to assist immigrant detainees, and few immigrants without legal training have the necessary background, skills, and resources to research, organize, and write winning briefs before the BIA. Without representation, immigrants may face serious legal and personal consequences, such as deportation, separation from family, and an inability to obtain or maintain lawful status in this country.
Participation in the BIA Pro Bono Project, and other pro bono projects at CLINIC and similar legal service organizations, has important benefits for the volunteer, as well. Representing an immigrant in removal proceedings or before a governmental agency provides opportunities to network with other immigration practitioners; gain expertise in an increasingly important and high-profile area of the law; and learn about the social, political, and economic challenges 21st-century immigrants face in this country. Working on meaningful, challenging projects also helps sustain the energy that drove so many of us to enter the legal field in the first place.
Attorneys who are interested in participating in the BIA Pro Bono Project may contact Ann Atalla at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Ann Atalla is the BIA Pro Bono Project Attorney for CLINIC