The American Bar Association is facing mounting pressure to move a conference in Phoenix scheduled for next week after its co-sponsor backed out and two New York public interest law groups called for a boycott to protest Arizona's controversial new immigration law.
The City Bar Justice Center, the pro bono arm of the New York City Bar, on Monday called for the conference to be moved to another state, while the Legal Aid Society said three employees who had intended to go will not attend. The board of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, which was to co-sponsor the conference, voted late Monday to pull out of the event.
The boycotts come in reaction to an Arizona law enacted last month that makes it illegal not to carry immigration documents and gives police authority to detain anyone on the basis of "reasonable suspicion" that a person is in the country illegally. The ABA conference is scheduled for May 13-15 and will focus on legal services for poor and low-income individuals. More than 800 people are expected to attend, according to the conference's website.
Gary Windom, the chair of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association's board and the Riverside County public defender in Riverside, Calif., said his group was not reacting to the New York boycotts but because the new Arizona law "violates and flies in the face of our core values."
"At this time, the ABA has not made a decision, and from all appearances may proceed with the convention," Windom said. "But that's a decision they will have to make."
Officials with the ABA did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In an undated statement on the conference's website posted last week, the ABA and the defender group said they were "considering every alternative and chance to voice our opposition to this policy" without canceling the event.
"Indeed, the Equal Justice Conference could be an appropriate platform to make a statement about this type of legislation and to educate justice advocates about strategies they should consider when they return home, especially given the rising tide of similar legislation in other states," the statement said.
They said they do not want their presence in Arizona "to indicate even the smallest amount of affirmation for a policy that threatens to discriminate based on nationality and the color of a person's skin."
The statement was signed by Steven B. Scudder, counsel for the ABA standing committee on pro bono and public service, and Donald Saunders, director of civil legal services at the NLADA.
Lynn Kelly, executive director of the Justice Center, said six lawyers from the city bar, including herself, are skipping the event, as well as four other New York lawyers who were to serve on a panel with Kelly about pro bono attorneys getting involved in immigration detention.
"For us it became a matter of principle that we not go to a state that has just passed this incredibly repressive immigration law to talk about pro bono," Kelly said.
The Justice Center in a statement said it "believes the new Arizona immigration law to be an unfair, unjust law that will cause great hardship to many people regardless of their immigration status."
The Legal Aid Society released a statement saying it "has concern about attending a conference on equal justice that is being held in a jurisdiction that has just passed a law denying equal justice to immigrants and other individuals."
The Justice Center's withdrawal from the conference had the support of Austin T. Fragomen, the chairman of the City Bar Fund and head of the 250-lawyer Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, the country's largest corporate immigration law firm. Fragomen had planned to moderate the detention panel.
Fragomen said in an interview he had hoped that organizers could be persuaded to relocate and put economic pressure on the state to reconsider the law. The American Immigration Lawyers Association last month decided to move its fall conference out of Arizona, while the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha on Friday said it would relocate its July convention from Phoenix to Las Vegas.
But the ABA's conference is just over a week away.
"While we appreciate that this was fairly short notice, it was really disappointing to us that the ABA and NLADA did not see fit to change the venue to another state," Fragomen said before the NLADA changed its stance.
The discussion on pro bono attorneys handling detention matters, scheduled for May 14, was to focus on a joint effort by the Justice Center, Legal Aid and the American Immigration Lawyers to provide legal assistance to detainees at the Varick Federal Detention Center.
Five out of six of the panelists have confirmed they will not attend. Only Renee Kathawala, pro bono counsel at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, has not yet decided.
Kathawala said in an interview that while he does not support the Arizona law, the conference would be one of the few opportunities he has every year to meet with legal services providers outside of New York.
"If I had my druthers I wouldn't go because I'd hope nobody would go," he said. "But given the business considerations I haven't yet formally decided."
For Maria Navarro, the supervising attorney in the immigration law unit of Legal Aid, the decision to boycott the event was personal, she said, as she was born in Mexico.
"But also I feel on a daily basis we fight for people who are immigrants," she said. "This feels like a law that unfairly discriminates against our clients."