By 9:30 am on a bitter cold January morning, the waiting area outside Room 1230, a ceremonial courtroom of the New York City Immigration Court in Lower Manhattan, was already filled to capacity with an assortment of undocumented minor immigrants, aged 10 to 18, sporting fluffy insulated jackets, scarves, and knit caps. As each waited his or her turn to enter, many remained bundled up. Almost all had recently arrived from Central America and, therefore, were more accustomed to sweltering temperatures in the upper 80s that time of year rather than a freezing 9 degrees Fahrenheit.
Inside the courtroom, a hive of activity was getting under way. Snippets of conversations in Spanish and English filtered out from small groups. Volunteer lawyers dressed in black suits asked the youths, who are all facing potential deportation, questions like “Why did you leave your country?”, “Was there any violence in your house?”, “Are you afraid of gangs?”, and so forth in their quest to understand why the youths took the precarious journey to enter the United States undocumented and what immigration relief they might be eligible for.
Supervising the situation was Gloria Chacon, a 26-year-old lawyer with a warm demeanor and a beatific smile, who recently graduated from New York Law School in New York City. “Have you screened before? Do you speak Spanish?” she asked a newly arriving lawyer volunteer.
Spanish, however, isn’t the only foreign language that crops up. “Two times, I’ve heard Mandarin spoken here,” says Chacon, who has been coordinating these weekly screening sessions with her colleague, Amy Pont, since September 2014, both as Justice Fellows with the Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC).
Immigration Justice Corps
Founded by Hon. Robert Katzmann, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who frequently observed from his judicial perch that there were not enough immigration lawyers to go around, the IJC (based in New York City) was launched in September as the nation’s first fellowship for immigration lawyers and community advocates.
“It was created to address a huge gap in quantity and quality for immigrants in need of legal help,” says Executive Director Rachel B. Tiven, a lawyer who formerly led Immigration Equality, also based in New York City.
Just as the 27-year-old Skadden Fellowship Program made the pursuit of public interest law more appealing and esteemed (the Los Angeles Times once dubbed it a “legal Peace Corps”), Tiven hopes the IJC will have a comparable effect on law school graduates.
“Our day-to-day goal is to provide excellent legal services to as many immigrants as possible,” Tiven says. “But our long-time goal is really to upgrade the prestige of the field so that students who go to law school say, ‘I want to be an immigration lawyer.’”
Chacon and Pont were competitively selected, along with 23 other recent law school graduates, to form the inaugural class of Justice Fellows. All receive annual salaries of $50,000; their commitment to the program is for two years, with the possibility of a third. In September, they completed a month of comprehensive immigration law training. Afterward, they were placed among 12 local host organizations (legal nonprofits including the Legal Aid Society and Urban Justice Center), where they now advocate daily on behalf of immigrant New Yorkers.
Increased Demand, Understaffed Resources
New York City Immigration Court already marshals one of the highest caseloads in the country. From 2005 to 2010, for example, the parents of more than 7,000 U.S.-citizen children in New York City were deported. President Barack Obama’s executive order in November 2014, which could afford as many as 4 million to 5 million unauthorized immigrants with certain protections, will further stretch the available immigration legal services in New York City and elsewhere, especially considering the large numbers of undocumented and unaccompanied minor children who poured across the U.S. Southwest border during the past year alone. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services took custody of approximately 58,100 unaccompanied children at the border in fiscal year 2014, more than twice the number apprehended the previous year.
“We are completely overwhelmed right now,” says Cheryl Little, cofounder and executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, Florida, which primarily services immigrant survivors of trafficking and domestic violence and children. “It’s the only nonprofit agency in south Florida authorized by the federal government to help children detained in shelters while they wait for release to sponsors or foster care,” says Little, who recently hired a spate of new lawyers to help alleviate the increased demand.
At the ProBAR Children’s Project in Harlingen, Texas, where children who cross the Southwest border into the United States are provided, at a minimum, a Know Your Rights presentation and a legal screening, the number of lawyers and paralegals has increased threefold in two years. Yet the organization remains understaffed.
“We are forced to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable,” says ProBAR’s managing attorney, Meghan Johnson, referring to children who are fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries. “We are not meeting the needs of every child we meet. And every one we meet is in need.”
A Model for Legal Services
Immigrants who apply for relief with the help of a lawyer “are more than five times more likely to win relief,” according to the IJC website. In its quest to reach more immigrants needing assistance, the IJC created a two-tiered fellowship program. Besides its Justice Fellows, the program trains Community Fellows, recent college graduates who similarly serve for two years. They are taught how to conduct outreach and legal intake and other paralegal-type responsibilities. Then they are placed with host organizations that have not formerly offered legal services, but are venues, like food banks and health clinics, where low-income immigrants commonly go for other types of assistance.
“It’s a nice model,” says Sarah Deri Oshiro, managing attorney for IJC, explaining that the 10 Community Fellows currently enrolled (which will be upped to 20 in the next round) have already funneled dozens of clients to the Justice Fellows.
The IJC looks especially favorably on fellowship applicants, like Chacon, who have personally experienced what it’s like to be an immigrant. “I came from Honduras when I was 15,” says Chacon, who entered the United States with her mother and sister as tourists.
Desiring the greater economic opportunities available here, they overstayed their visas. For three years, they resided as undocumented immigrants while putting their faith in an immigration lawyer who made multiple mistakes in their cases. Their papers eventually came through. But, as a consequence, Chacon says she feels a strong connection with people who are new in the country, don’t know the language, and are in dire need of legal help and can’t afford it.
Pont, 28, who was born in the United States and graduated in May 2014 from New York University School of Law, is the daughter of a single mother who emigrated from Colombia. Her mother demonstrated firsthand what it means to be an immigrant striver: She cleaned houses to put herself through college, eventually earning a master’s degree and a high school teaching position.
Pont, along with Chacon, was placed with the host organization, The Door, a New York City–based comprehensive youth development services organization, where most of their clients are Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases: children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected in their home country.
Immigration Court Screenings and Hearings
Every Thursday morning, Chacon and Pont position themselves at the New York City Immigration Court. They take turns supervising screenings or stationing themselves elsewhere in the courthouse to greet immigrants in need of legal assistance and to direct them to the screening room. On that particularly frigid Thursday in January, Chacon supervised while Pont headed upstairs to the 14th floor, where pretrial administration hearings involving the most recent arrivals of undocumented minors were taking place.
“This is a fast track, per a directive from the government,” says Pont, standing outside the courtroom of Hon. Virna A. Wright, one of two judges assigned to expedite these cases. Even the swinging door that separates the judge’s bench from the public seating area was adapted to the circumstances. It has sticky notes affixed to it that state “pull” and “tire” (Spanish for “pull”).
Pont waited for a young man whose deportation case she is taking on. “I came here to support him,” she says, explaining that he left his Central American country because of gang threats. After he was apprehended at the border, he was forwarded to New York City for placement with relatives or a sponsor while he fights his deportation. When his turn came to appear before Judge Wright, Pont sat with him while he presented proof that he is attending school and answered the judge’s inquiries about the type of relief he is seeking.
By early afternoon, the screening session had ended. Chacon and Pont collected the completed screening forms of 14 young people. They will review their cases in more depth at their office and likely handle most of them. They will spend the rest of their week on immigration matters like preparing cases, filing motions, and appearing in Family Court.
Encouragement from a Justice
Along with the other Justice Fellows, the duo also spends one afternoon biweekly on professional development. They network. They reflect on their fellowship experience. And they receive further training on various aspects of immigration law as taught by experts in the field. One such session included a visit from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican–born parents.
“It was so amazing. I got to tell her she was my hero,” says Chacon, who recalls the justice’s expressing concerns about the lack of representation available to immigrants and the challenges these future immigration lawyers face. “She said, ‘Some things are going to be very disappointing, but you have to keep trying.’”