San Diego Lawyer July/August 2017

Page 11



Immigration Case Backlog Reaches Crisis, Call for Pro Bono Assistance How a local law school clinic is assisting San Diegans ccording to a report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a non-partisan data gathering, data research and data distribution organization at Syracuse University, in 1998, there were approximately 120,000 pending cases in U.S. immigration courts. The following year, the caseload dropped slightly only to rebound in 2001 and plateau around 175,000 cases until 2008, when the caseload began to rise much more aggressively. Fast forward a decade: the caseload has more than doubled. Today, there are approximately 595,000 pending immigration cases in the United States.1 And that case count is predicted to grow, due to recent well-publicized changes to federal immigration policies.


With only 320 federal immigration judges handling the half-million-plus cases, the average wait time for adjudicating a case is 677 days — nearly two years.2 Even with the news that the Department of Justice will add 40 new immigration judges to alleviate pressure on the court, we cannot ignore the fact that we are facing a crisis. It’s not just the case numbers, the lack of judges and the wait time; there is also a severe shortage of qualified lawyers to represent these clients. This lack of legal representation cuts the deepest. If the current caseload were divided between the estimated 13,000 members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, each lawyer would have a minimum of 45 cases. Instead, most of these clients appear unrepresented before a tribunal that often seems determined to send them “home,” regardless of the circumstances. A portion of immigration-related cases are handled by law school legal clinics across the country that help individuals 1 2

Niels Schaumann decide if they need a lawyer, and then refer clients to attorneys who provide affordable or pro bono services. California Western School of Law’s Community Law Project (CLP) is one such clinic. CLP provides pro bono legal services including legal advice, consultations and community education in 11 areas of law, and serves more than 1,000 individuals each year through one-on-one consultations and community education presentations. CLP is on the front lines of immigration issues in San Diego, and thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Price Philanthropies Foundation, CLP is increasing its impact in the communities hit hardest by immigration issues. Price Philanthropies approached CLP earlier in 2017 about providing additional funding to help fill the needs of immigrant communities living in San Diego’s MidCity and City Heights neighborhoods. Price recognized CLP’s established and committed immigration work in the community and wanted to support the continuation of that work. With the grant, CLP has already hired an additional parttime staff member to support the efforts. For clients and families who are actually in deportation proceedings, CLP facilitates referrals to immigration attorneys who have experience in deportation/ removal defense. CLP frequently assesses

and facilitates referrals to nonprofit organizations (such as San Diego’s Casa Cornelia) for immigrant clients who may be able to obtain legal status and avoid immigration enforcement (i.e., through family-based petitions, DACA, VAWA, U-Visa or other forms of humanitarian immigration relief ). CLP conducts community education presentations and counsels individual clients on how to exercise their constitutional rights during an interaction with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other law enforcement agencies. When deportation is inevitable, CLP counsels immigrant families on how to prepare for deportation (e.g., designating a trusted caregiver for children who are to be left behind). CLP clinics are staffed by pro bono attorneys, volunteer law students, and experienced supervising attorneys who work together to assess clients’ issues and give them personalized advice and general information about the legal system. When general legal advice is not enough, clients are scheduled for a follow-up consultation with an attorney who is an expert in the relevant legal field. You can help. With all that CLP does, it needs more attorneys willing to offer their expertise and time to help clients. Please consider donating your time to CLP. For more information, you can email Dana Sisitsky, CLP’s executive director, at For other ways to give, please visit the CLP website at And if you don’t give to CLP, please consider another local immigration clinic. Together, we can do our part to make a difference in our community. Niels Schaumann is President and Dean of California Western School of Law. | Data collected and compiled by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University. | “By the numbers: Why immigration cases take so long,”, April 12, 2017 July/August 2017 SAN DIEGO LAWYER 11

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