“All of us here have a common concern: ensuring adequate representation of a vulnerable group of human beings—immigrants,” said the Honorable Robert A. Katzmann, the chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the founder of the Study Group on Immigrant Representation, at a conference held at Fordham Law School on May 8. The conference, titled “A Decade of Advancing Immigrant Representation,” celebrated the study group’s tenth anniversary and drew together experts for a daylong conversation about the past and future of the study group and of immigrant rights more generally.
“The world is changing,” said Fordham Law Dean Matthew Diller, “and we are called upon to do what we can and use our talents, skills, passions, and energies as lawyers to help make a difference in people’s lives in these ways that are so fundamental and critical to them.” Diller applauded all immigrant rights advocates and especially Judge Katzmann, whose ideas and enthusiasm continue to inspire.
In his opening remarks, Judge Katzmann cited the study group’s many accomplishments: the seminal and groundbreaking studies that demonstrated through data the policy rationale for immigrant defense programs; the founding of the Immigrant Justice Corps, the nation’s first immigration legal fellowship program; the recruiting of pro bono lawyers; and the bolstering of law school clinics among other achievements. He stressed, however, the continued urgency to fight for immigrants’ rights.
“The New York experience is an example of what can be done when there is the resolve and the dedication to do something to meet the need,” said Katzmann. “But at the same time, substantial gaps in representation remain, especially for those who are not detained, and there must be a continuing sustained effort to provide legal counsel for those, indeed for all individuals.”
Following Katzmann’s remarks, conference participants listened to several panels that addressed past initiatives and ideas for future work.
A late-morning plenary panel titled “Progress Thus Far” drew together professionals who reflected on the immigrant rights landscape before the study group’s formation.
“The majority of the representation at the time was composed of unprepared practitioners who were unversed in the relevant law,” said Peter L. Markowitz, professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “It was crazy to me that there could be this stain on the American justice system in the legal community in the heart of New York that went largely unnoticed and without resistance.” He recounted how, at Katzmann’s initiation, various impassioned legal professionals sought to put their beliefs into action in regards to increasing both quality and quantity of legal representation.
Markowitz’s fellow participants included Fordham Law Jojo Annobil ’90, executive director of the Immigrant Justice Corps; Veyom Bahl, managing director of survival at the Robin Hood Foundation; Hon. Carlos Menchaca, NYC council member; and Hon. Robert D. Weisel, retired member of the New York Immigration Court. The panel was moderated by Lindsay Nash, visiting assistant clinical professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
Panelists recalled how, before the study group, most clients lacked representation and others were represented by too many lawyers who were ignorant of the law as applied to their cases. Some initiatives panelists discussed included training college and law school graduates, investing in technological tools to increase case efficiency, and increasing pro bono capacity.
In the afternoon, conference participants listened to talks about replication and expansion and about a client’s perspective. They were also invited to choose from among breakout sessions on the New York Family Unity Project, on New York City’s recent initiatives, and on leveraging pro bono resources.
One of these breakout sessions, “Examining NYC’s Evolving Landscape over the Past Decade – A Sea Change in the Quality and Quantity of Justice for Immigrants,” brought together panelists to discuss the city’s recent civil rights movement in this area of law, especially amid President Trump’s and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s aggressive anti-immigrant actions. Panelists included Gemma Solimene, clinical associate professor at Fordham Law; Luis Mancheno, attorney at the Immigration Practice at The Bronx Defenders; Samuel Palmer-Simon, supervising attorney of the Immigrant Justice Corps; Hasan Shafiqullah, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit; and Amy Taylor, co-legal director at Make the Road New York. The panel was moderated by Joanne Macri, chief statewide implementation attorney at the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services.
Some of the recent challenges that panelists addressed included governmental threats to decrease protections for children and other immigrants, to thwart asylum requests from those who suffer domestic abuse, and to label immigrants as gang members.
Despite and because of recent anti-immigrant actions, lawyers and non-lawyers alike have united in an impassioned response to fight for immigrants’ rights. For this reason, panelists expressed optimism.
“I do see increased mobilization,” said Solimene, noting the earnestness displayed by concerned citizens, including Fordham Law students who have led initiatives. “I have a tempered optimism.”
“This administration has been so successful at dehumanizing the people we are talking about,” said Mancheno. “The biggest challenge is to fight dehumanization and to realize that we are talking about human beings.”
The conference’s numerous organizers and co-sponsors included the A2J Initiative at Fordham Law School, Fordham Law Review, Fordham Law School Feerick Center for Social Justice, National Center for Access to Justice, Fordham Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic, Immigrant Justice Corps, Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Study Group on Immigration Representation, and Vera Institute of Justice.