Back to top

Equal Justice at Work: May 2013

Executive Director's Corner

The Next Wave – The Immigration Reform Tsunami

If you are like me – distressed by the overwhelming number of unrepresented immigrants who face deportation or other complicated legal issues, and how the federal courts are already overcome with such cases – brace yourself for a Tsunami. If comprehensive immigration reform becomes law, there will be 11 million people seeking citizenship in the U.S.

Is the legal profession prepared? Hardly. NPR reported on the issue on April 29, with the title “With Or Without Overhaul, Immigration Lawyers In Short Supply,” focusing on the already existing shortage of legal resources for immigrants, the need for more immigration attorneys, and the fraud inflicted by unethical lawyers who prey on desperate immigrants.

Fortunately, there are some very smart visionary people who are beginning to look beyond the passage of legislation and examine solutions to the considerable challenges our society will face in implementing these laws. The Paul Revere of the impending crisis has been Bob Juceam, a lawyer at Fried Frank and a longtime leader in getting the private bar to provide more pro bono assistance to immigrants. Bob's passion, determination and endless energy are pushing leaders in the immigration bar to come up with big ideas for how to deal with the upcoming demand.

Judge Robert Katzmann, on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, knows firsthand the problems faced by the federal courts in dealing with immigration. As reported in the New York Times on March 19, Judge Katzmann has proposed the creation of a $5 million Immigrant Justice Corps program to recruit and train hundreds of young lawyers who will then work at community organizations across the country to address the mounting problem of inadequate legal representation for immigrants applying for visas, green cards and citizenship. Equal Justice Works hopes to be part of this initiative given our expertise surrounding legal fellowships.

With record numbers of unemployed law school graduates, an increased desire to practice public interest law among law students and lawyers, and an enormous and looming need in immigration law, conditions are ripe for law students and attorneys to look beyond the traditional areas of practice and consider the many paths available in immigration law. Consider starting your own immigration practice and build your own business. Law schools can help. Check out the Pace Community Law Practice, a new legal residency and solo practice incubator serving low-income immigrants.

Look to the dozens of organizations doing this work and some of the innovations. For example, Microsoft teamed up with Angelina Jolie to create Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which provides representation to unaccompanied immigrant minors facing deportation. And you can absolutely count on Equal Justice Works to continue funding new fellowships for needy immigrants seeking justice similar to those we already have in this area. For inspiration, keep reading to learn about two Equal Justice Works Fellows who were involved in a landmark decision which grants right to counsel for immigrant detainees with mental disabilities in Arizona, California, and Washington State. Carmen Iguina (who you may remember as the first Fellow funded by our Text to Give Campaign!) and Esha Bandhari worked together from opposite sides of the country, alongside other Equal Justice Works Fellows and alumni, to bring justice to this vulnerable population.

There is a huge change coming. And I foresee many exciting developments to provide new passionate lawyers with opportunities to make a difference on behalf of millions of people who would otherwise be without representation.




Fellows on the Front

Equal Justice Works Fellows reach historic victory for immigrants’ rights

Carmen Iguina and Esha Bhandari work on opposite coasts, but their impact is bound together by a recent historic victory they had in a case concerning immigrant detainee populations. Both Carmen and Esha work for the ACLU—Carmen at the ACLU of Southern California and Esha at the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project in New York City. Their recent victory was the result of tireless work and plenty of collaboration which led to ensuring right to counsel for immigrant detainees with mental disabilities in Arizona, California, and Washington State.

Esha is the daughter of immigrant parents and has always been passionate about immigrants’ rights. She worked on immigration throughout law school and was an extern for one summer at the Legal Resources Center in Cape Town, South Africa, where, she worked with refugees and asylees who had fled very difficult circumstances. They faced many legal and other hurdles integrating into life in South Africa, but Esha was moved by their “dedication and commitment to building new lives in the face of hardship.” She was excited to develop her Fellowship project at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project after this experience, and finds it “immensely gratifying to fight for the rights of immigrants and know I am a small part of helping them achieve their dreams.”

Carmen is similarly inspired by firsthand experience, and says she has always wanted to work with immigrants. “I’m originally from Puerto Rico, so I often feel more at home among immigrant communities, particularly Latino communities, than anywhere else,” she says. “Even though our circumstances are vastly different, we share a common language, similar cultures, and the experience of being strangers in a strange land.” Working as a summer intern at New York City’s The Door, a youth advocacy organization, Carmen worked with a client whose sister was over 21 and couldn’t be helped by The Door. The sister was forced to navigate our complex immigration system alone, and that experience showed Carmen the importance of legal assistance in immigration proceedings. “I am passionate about ensuring that no vulnerable individual is forced to stand alone in fighting for his or her right to remain in the United States.”

On April 23, Carmen and Esha won a historic ruling in a class action case, Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, in which the federal district judge ordered the government to provide legal representation to individuals with serious mental disabilities who cannot represent themselves in their immigration proceedings. This decision is the first ever to recognize a right to appointed counsel in immigration proceedings for a group of immigrants. Read more about the case on our blog.

This class action lawsuit has been in process for the past three years, with Equal Justice Works Fellows and alumni Greg Pleasants, Jennifer Stark, Ahilan Arulanantham and Talia Inlender working alongside Esha and Carmen to achieve the culminating victory this year. Carmen says, “Through this project, I’ve been blessed to see firsthand the reach of the Equal Justice Works network and the impact of Equal Justice Works Fellowships in our society. I work under the supervision of alum Ahilan Arulanantham, who has been a terrific mentor and is always looking for ways to integrate Fellows into the work of the ACLU. I also work under the supervision of Talia Inlender, another alum whose dedication to immigrants’ rights work is truly inspiring. The support of Equal Justice Works has been invaluable in achieving this great victory on behalf of one of the most vulnerable group of immigrant detainees.” Esha adds, “The Equal Justice Works network has been instrumental for me, because many alumni go on to become leaders in public interest, who in turn can sponsor, mentor, and supervise new Equal Justice Works fellows.”

Both Esha and Carmen plan to continue working in the public interest, and both want to work in areas that advance civil and human rights. With such a momentous victory under their belts, the future looks bright for both of their Fellowships, for their careers, and for the growing network of Equal Justice Works Fellows and alumni. 


AmeriCorps Update

Joplin, Missouri continues to rebuild with the help of Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows

The Joplin Tornado was nearly two years ago to the day, but Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows Jamie Rodriguez and Zach Tusinger are still picking up the pieces after the disaster hit their hometown. The importance of lawyers after disasters strike is instrumental in helping victims navigate FEMA benefits, file claims, and get back on their feet. While Zach and Jamie lent their talents to New York City in the Hurricane Sandy relief effort, they are now back in Joplin at Legal Aid of Western Missouri and are continuing to provide invaluable assistance to people who are still rebuilding.

Jamie recently served a woman whose home was severely damaged in the tornado. The client filed a FEMA claim for personal property that was unsuccessful. The requested amount was high because she lost all of her large appliances due to electricity surges and water damage. By the time the client came to Legal Aid, she had appealed the case by herself and had once again been denied. Jamie stepped in. She requested a copy of the client’s full FEMA case file, was able to reopen the case, advocate for her client with local FEMA staff, and prepared a new, more comprehensive appeal. This appeal was successful, and FEMA awarded the client $2,500 in personal property funds.

Zach served a client that lost all of his personal paperwork in the Joplin tornado. A year later, the victim was sued by one of his former credit card companies. The client had reported his credit cards missing after the tornado, but one credit card company incorrectly processed the report. Ultimately, this mistaken debt was sold to a debt collection firm who sued the client. The client had a minimum wage job, was a single father, and was still getting back on his feet after the tornado. There was no way he could pay the alleged debt. He feared the worst – the court would order money taken from his bank account and garnish his wages. Zach represented the client in court and ultimately was able to get the case dismissed, thus securing financial stability and a better future for the client and his children. Read more about Zach and Jamie on our blog


Educational Debt Tip of the Month

Worth Reading: the Illinois State Bar Association’s Recommendations on Student Debt

Worth reading this month is the final report and recommendations of the Illinois State Bar Association’s Special Committee on the Impact of Law School Debt on the Delivery of Legal Services. The problems identified by the report are familiar. They include the increasing number of young lawyers unable to find employment and forced into solo practice, the ongoing lack of affordable legal services for poor and middle class families, and the fact that African-Americans and Hispanics are likely to graduate from law school with more debt than their white counterparts.

More interesting are the report’s recommendations. It concludes law schools are not doing a good job preparing students to practice law and recommends focusing on practice-oriented courses, teaching law office management, providing bar review courses at no extra cost, and transitioning second- and third-year students to apprenticeships and teaching assistantships.

On the financial side, the report boldly recommends limiting federal loan eligibility to law schools that meet repayment and employment measures akin to the gainful employment regulations that now govern vocational programs. Schools that failed to meet these standards and lost their eligibility for federal loans would probably have to close.

We are skeptical about a couple of other proposals. The report advocates not allowing attorneys above a certain income level to enroll in Income-Based Repayment; but eligibility for IBR is based on having a disproportionate debt-to-income level, so the difficulty borrowers face in repaying loans is the same regardless of their income.

The report also calls for limiting the federal loans law students can borrow while reinstating the ability to discharge private student loans in bankruptcy. The hope is to constrain tuition by limiting it to what students can borrow in federal loans plus the amount private lenders will provide after carefully scrutinizing their ability to repay. We are dubious these market constraints will work, expect a significant number of borrowers will regret taking out private loans that lack the important borrower protections of federal loans, and worry it will disproportionately diminish the enrollment of poor and minority students.

On the bright side, don’t forget to take advantage of the opportunities Equal Justice Works provides to learn how programs like income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness can ease the burden of student debt, including our free webinars and our Kindle e-book, Take Control of Your Future.