Dan Werner of Southern Poverty Law Center. Courtesy photo

Pro bono leaders from the city’s big firms gathered at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton on Tuesday for updates from Dan Werner of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Michael Lucas of Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation on two ambitious new pro bono initiatives that are quickly gaining traction.

The SPLC launched an unprecedented deportation defense project at the Stewart Detention Center in April, and AVLF last year started a project at Thomasville Heights Elementary School in southeast Atlanta that provides legal aid to resolve housing problems that cause children to struggle with school and miss days.

Both pilot projects embed staff lawyers on-site—at the immigration court and the elementary school, respectively—and recruit volunteer lawyers from the private bar to help with individual cases. Each has gained enough support to start expanding to new locations, Werner and Lucas told the Atlanta Pro Bono Roundtable members.

Largest Deportation Defense Effort

Werner reported that the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) is in full swing at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, which is a two-and-a-half hour drive south of Atlanta.

Werner announced in March that SPLC was recruiting volunteer lawyers to provide free legal representation to every immigrant detained at Stewart. The first phase, a month of court-watching where volunteer lawyers observed 436 immigration hearings, concluded in April.

As a result, the SPLC on Tuesday filed a complaint against the Stewart Immigration Court before the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, alleging that the two on-site judges, Saundra Arrington and Dan Trimble, are violating the detainees’ constitutional rights by failing to explain basic legal information and to act appropriately on the bench.

“The behavior of the judges has largely gone unnoticed,” Werner said, because of the court’s remote location.

Now SIFI’s focus is getting detainees bonded out, and phase three is ramping up—representing those with meritorious cases.

The Obama administration detained and deported the most undocumented immigrants of any administration ever, Werner said on Tuesday, and the numbers are shooting even higher under the Trump administration.

Lawyers on the ground at Stewart are reporting that ICE arrests are becoming more indiscriminate, he said. “They are picking up anyone undocumented,” he said.

The Stewart Immigration Court has the highest deportation rate in the country—91.5 percent, compared with 54.1 percent nationally, according to TRAC Report at Syracuse University, which monitors U.S. immigration courts.

It has been called the “toughest immigration court” in the nation and the adjacent detention center “the black hole of the immigration system,” by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit reporting on the criminal justice system.

Run by Corrections Corporation of America, Stewart is one of the nation’s largest immigration prisons, with 1,900 beds.

The SPLC is funding two resident staff attorneys and a “super-paralegal” for Stewart. As soon as it finishes hiring core staff, Werner said, it is opening bases at Irwin Detention Center in Ocilla and LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana, which The Guardian reported in June is “part of Trump’s attempt to fast-track deportations.”

Eleven lawyers from San Francisco are volunteering at Stewart this week to meet with detainees and file bond motions. Werner called it the largest group to volunteer so far, with lawyers from DLA Piper and solo attorneys.

Kirkland & Ellis lawyers are visiting next week, Werner said, and lawyers from Covington & Burling and Atlanta-based Eversheds Sutherland and Kilpatrick have already made the trip.

Jimmy Faris, a trademark associate at Kilpatrick, praised the training for allowing lawyers to handle the bond matters without having any immigration law expertise.

So far, 51 volunteer lawyers have spent a week apiece at Stewart, along with 19 volunteer interpreters and another 19 law students, Werner said, since the initiative kicked off in April.

The volunteers commit to a six-day visit to augment the staff attorneys’ efforts, arriving on Sunday for training and orientation and then spending the week meeting with detainees, drafting bond motions and parole petitions and representing clients in bond hearings.

Because of the high volume of detainees, SPLC is handling merit claims only for men who have not bonded out of Stewart. They can be handled remotely, Werner said, and SPLC has developed training materials with American Immigration Lawyers Association and other groups.

So far, SIFI lawyers have secured almost no bond releases, Werner said, adding that the judges have been saying the detainees are flight risks but not saying why.

“These are high-quality motions,” said Faris, the Kilpatrick lawyer, adding that the SPLC staff helped him prepare a 25-page motion supported by “hundreds of pages of evidence” from a petitioner’s community.

“We are appealing every bond denial,” Werner said.

In one notable success, the lawyers secured parole for a young man who fled Honduras with his 11-year-old brother to escape a gang trying to recruit him. The gang shot at him and threatened to rape his brother if he didn’t join, Werner said. He asked for asylum at the border, but instead ICE sent him to Stewart and his younger brother to a shelter. The two are back together now.

“We’re such a new project, there are not a lot of happy endings. This is one of them,” Werner said.

No immigration law experience is required for lawyers volunteering for Stewart visits or to prepare merit claims, and they don’t need to be members of the State Bar of Georgia. To sign up or get more information on SIFI, visit www.splcenter.org/SIFI or email sifi@splccenter.org.

Housing and School Success

At AVLF, Lucas last year launched Standing With Our Neighbors, a project aimed at reducing absenteeism and school turnover at Thomasville Heights Elementary School in southeast Atlanta.

Last year, AVLF stationed a full-time lawyer and community activist at the school that children, parents and grandparents could turn to for help with issues, such as eviction notices, moldy apartments and rats, that make it hard for the children to do well in school.

“The housing issues connect to school turnover,” Lucas said.

Thomasville Heights reported 40 percent turnover in 2015 from the prior year, and 110 students experienced evictions across the street at the Forest Cove apartment complex. All the schools’ students live at the Section 8 apartment complex, which Lucas said is poorly maintained.

Lucas told the story of Maya, a first-grader, and her brother Jamal, a fourth-grader, to show how the program works.

Maya was staying up too late at night because she was worried about rats crawling over her bed, Lucas said, so she was struggling in school. Jamal also was struggling, because he missed a lot of school from asthma flare-ups caused by the mold in their apartment, where they live with their grandmother.

After months of repeatedly asking the management company to fix the apartment, the family received an eviction notice instead.

Ayanna Jones-Lightsy, AVLF’s staff attorney at the school, took the case. Meanwhile, Christal Reynolds, AVLF’s community advocate, ordered a dehumidifier supplied by The Home Depot Foundation.

Lucas said that within four days all the repairs were done and Jones got the eviction dismissed.

The unique initiative helped improve conditions and stabilize housing for 75 students at Thomasville Heights last year, Lucas said. They were helped by 32 volunteer attorneys who took cases, while 35 attorneys performed in-depth legal research.

Eversheds Sutherland and seven other firms have partnered with AVLF to supply pro bono lawyers for the Forest Cove residents: Alston & Bird, Arnall Golden Gregory, Jones Day, Kilpatrick, King & Spalding, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, and Troutman Sanders.

AVLF has expanded the project this year to nearby T.H. Slater Elementary School and Price Middle School. Like Thomasville Heights, they feed into G.W. Carver High School, which is scheduled to become part of the project next year.

The legal nonprofit has a five-year contract with Purpose Built Schools, a non-profit that Atlanta Public Schools hired to turn around schools in the Carver cluster. The Cousins Foundation and Kaiser Permanente also are supporting the project.

Lucas said AVLF plans to expand the project to other schools in Atlanta neighborhoods with similarly high turnover and eviction rates as funding permits.