Volunteer Advocates for Immigrant Justice (VAIJ), a pro bono legal representation project in Seattle, offers free legal assistance to detained immigrants seeking asylum or other forms of relief before the immigration courts. VAIJ, a joint initiative of the ABA Commission on Immigration and Microsoft Corporation is the first formal pro bono legal aid project sponsored by Microsoft. VAIJ is an affiliate of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).
The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains nearly 400,000 immigrants, refugees, and newcomers each year; around 1,500 in the state of Washington alone. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, through its Division of Unaccompanied Children’s Services (ORR/DUCS), now estimates that roughly 7,000 unaccompanied minors are taken into immigration custody each year. Some of these immigrants have fled persecution, civil war, ethnic conflict, and religious and political persecution. Many of the unaccompanied minors VAIJ serves are in the United States to escape domestic abuse, gang violence, extreme poverty, and social and political persecution; others are here as a result of human trafficking.
Once apprehended, these immigrants are detained while their case is pending before the immigration court. Other detainees include long-time residents of the United States who have committed immigration violations and are being held in detention while their cases proceed through the immigration courts. Immigrant detainees typically have little if any opportunity or resources to secure representation; as many as 90% appear pro se in their immigration legal proceedings. They face seemingly insurmountable hurdles to presenting asylum claims or requesting relief to prevent being removed from the United States.
Detainees, regardless of their age or situations, must present their cases despite language barriers that preclude them from understanding the laws or procedures that apply to their cases. Should they lose, some will be removed to a country where they may face persecution or even death. In other cases, immigrants will be removed to countries where they have not resided for years and may be permanently separated from their U.S. citizen families and homes.
VAIJ matches attorneys in the Seattle area with detained immigrants who have claims for relief, ensuring that detainees receive much-needed representation. VAIJ also gives attorneys the opportunity to learn about immigration law and become involved in the advocacy community.