Defending Vulnerable Populations Project | CLINIC

Defending Vulnerable Populations Project

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We find ourselves facing anti-immigrant sentiment aimed at the most vulnerable among us. This takes the form of rhetoric that dehumanizes immigrants, executive orders to ramp up detention and removal, the expansion of expedited removal, and shutting down refugee processing and barring people from certain Muslim countries. In addition, more than 500,000 immigrants currently have pending immigration court proceedings. The overwhelming majority of them must represent themselves because legal representation is not available.

To respond to these urgent circumstances and prepare for additional policy measures that will hurt immigrant families, CLINIC has launched the Defending Vulnerable Populations Project.

The project’s primary objective is to increase the number of fully accredited representatives and attorneys who are qualified to represent immigrants in immigration court proceedings. To accomplish this, the Defending Vulnerable Populations Project will conduct court skills training for both nonprofit agency staff (accredited representatives and attorneys) and pro bono attorneys; develop practice materials to assist legal representatives; advocate against retrogressive policy changes; and expand public awareness on issues faced by vulnerable immigrants.

By increasing access to competent, affordable representation, the project’s initiatives will focus on protecting the most vulnerable immigrants – those at immediate risk of deportation. As project Managing Attorney Michelle Mendez explains: “It is the responsibility of the legal community to protect immigrants living in the United States who do not have a voice. They are an integral part of our families, communities, schools and universities, places of worship, workforce, food supply chain, and the very identity of this nation. We are committed to defending their rights because this is what justice and fairness dictates and because, if their rights are safe, all of our rights are safe.”

The Defending Vulnerable Populations project complements and encompasses CLINIC’s established BIA Pro Bono Appeals project, which partners with volunteer attorneys and law clinics to defend detained asylum seekers and long-time lawful permanent residents before the Board of Immigration Appeals at no charge. The BIA is the nation’s highest immigration court, deciding deportation cases. A Department of Justice report in 2014 found that BIA Pro Bono Project clients were three times more likely to receive a favorable result in their cases when they obtained representation through the project.

“For 16 years, the BIA Pro Bono Project has taken the toughest cases on behalf of the most vulnerable immigrants,” said Bradley Jenkins, CLINIC’s BIA Pro Bono Project Manager. “Through the efforts of our pro bono attorneys, we have transformed deportation orders into durable relief for hundreds of refugees and permanent residents, and in the process, we have set precedents that protect thousands more.”

Building on the foundation of the BIA Pro Bono Project, the Defending Vulnerable Populations Project team will build effective court skills through a combination of e-learning and in-person trainings, mentorship, legal and advocacy case support, and comprehensive legal resources. “Increasing access to competent, affordable removal defense nationwide at the trial level is our goal. Winning cases before immigration judges is not only possible with the proper guidance and support, it will alleviate the need for BIA appeals,” said Staff Attorney Rebecca Scholtz.

The Defending Vulnerable Populations Project is comprised of Gabriela Castro, Mary Grace Donahue, Bradley Jenkins, Michelle Mendez, Rachel Naggar, Vickie Neilson, and Rebecca Scholtz.

If you are a CLINIC affiliate or non-profit attorney interested in participating, please contact Defending Vulnerable Populations Project Assistant, Gabriela Castro at

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