Virginia, US

As readers of this blog are well aware, the United States is facing an unprecedented refugee crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, with the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing abuse and violence in Central America. Many of these children may be eligible for asylum or other immigration relief in the United States, but with no right to court-appointed counsel in immigration proceedings, and with a severe shortage of non-profit legal services organizations available to provide representation, the future is bleak for these children unless pro bono attorneys step in. 

Last month, Austin Fragomen participated in a meeting at the White House, along with leaders of other major law firms, to discuss what the private sector can do to help. In response, the firm has rolled out a national pro bono initiative to provide representation to unaccompanied children who have been released to family members or into foster care in cities around the country. 

The firm has selected Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) as its national partner in this endeavor. Regionally, each Fragomen office will also be working with trusted local non-profits. For example, the firm’s New York office is partnering with New York Law School’s Safe Passage Project to screen children who appear in Immigration Court and to represent individual children, and with the City Bar Justice Center to mentor two new Immigrant Justice Fellows who will be taking on a number of new cases. In Phoenix, the firm is working with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. In San Diego, the firm is working with the Casa Cornelia Law Center. Other partnerships between regional Fragomen offices and local non-profit organizations are in the making. 

Immigration law is legendarily difficult to navigate without qualified legal assistance. We already face what Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has warned is an “immigrant representation crisis.” It is also well-established that immigrants who are represented by counsel are overwhelmingly more likely to prevail in removal proceedings than are those without counsel. As documented by the New York Immigrant Representation Study (NYIRS)—a pioneering study of the availability and adequacy of counsel in removal proceedings in New York—people facing removal in New York who have a lawyer are 500 percent more likely to win their cases than are those without representation. 

There is every reason to believe that the same holds true in other jurisdictions around the country. Moreover, data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Vera Institute of Justice indicate that between forty and sixty percent of unaccompanied immigrant children may be eligible for asylum or other relief. The numbers may actually be higher. For example, in testimony before the New York State Assembly on September 16, 2014, New York Law School Professor Lenni Benson, who heads up The Safe Passage Project, stated that approximately 80 percent of the children that Safe Passage attorneys screen appear to be eligible for lawful immigration status. But expecting a child to stand up alone in Immigration Court and articulate how he or she may be eligible to remain lawfully in the United States is simply unconscionable. This is where qualified immigration attorneys can really make a difference. 
 
There are lots of ways attorneys can help. In addition to taking on individual cases of unaccompanied children, Fragomen attorneys are also volunteering at juvenile dockets in immigration court, where they screen children for potential eligibility for relief from deportation and for a referral to pro bono attorneys or non-profit legal services organizations. Fragomen attorneys are staffing pro bono legal clinics around the country, holding “know your rights” sessions for juveniles, and sponsoring training sessions and educational forums for pro bono attorneys on representing children in immigration matters. 
 
We urge our fellow members of the bar to pitch in as well.