More than two dozen recent law school graduates have been selected as the pioneer class in a unique program to provide immigrants with much-needed legal assistance.
Starting Sept. 1, the 25 Immigrant Justice Corps fellows will spend at least two years representing immigrants in naturalization, deportation, detention, asylum and other proceedings.
“What I see is that this first crop represents a wide diversity of talent, including talent from the best schools,” said Robert Katzmann (See Profile), chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. “This is a group of lawyers, many of whom have immigrant experiences themselves, who are ready to serve.”
The judge said he had been dismayed to find examples in records of immigration cases where the outcomes would have benefitted immigrants had they had competent legal representation earlier.
“I had seen a tsunami of immigration cases in the years after 9/11, and I could see first-hand the impact of inadequate counsel—the devastating impact,” Katzmann said in an interview.
The fellows will be paid $50,000 in each of the two years of their commitment, along with relocation stipends and some student loan aid, said Peter Markowitz, the interim executive director of the Immigrant Justice Corps and head of the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
The fellows and the sponsors that “host” them will have an option of a third year, with a salary boost to $55,000. The corps and the hosts would each contribute $27,500 toward the fellows’ pay in the final year.
Lawyers at the host organizations will provide day-to-day supervision. Fellows will come to the Immigrant Justice Corps headquarters once every two weeks to have their progress monitored and to discuss their work.
The Robin Hood Foundation, which is providing $1.35 million in start-up funding for the corps, has agreed to host the program at its Manhattan offices for six months until the corps finds its own quarters.
For now, the fellows will handle cases only in New York, but Katzmann hopes to expand the program to other cities.
Another major donor is the JPB Foundation of Manhattan, which pledged $2 million, and has promised another $1 million if the corps reaches certain fundraising goals, which Markowitz said will soon be attained.
The first-year budget of the Immigration Justice Corps will be just over $4 million.
The program is also in the process of selecting 15 “community fellows”—non-law school college graduates who will be paid $38,000 a year to work with legal services providers and advocates to improve outreach to immigrant communities and in the use of technology to make legal services more readily available.
Markowitz took over as interim director in March following the appointment of the former executive director, Nisha Agarwal, as commissioner of the New York City Office of Immigrant Affairs by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Beginning July 1, Rachel Tiven will become executive director of the corps. She had been the executive director of Immigration Equality for more than eight years.
Legal services providers and law firms where the fellows will be assigned have not yet been announced, but Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy and the Federal Bar Foundation said they would sponsor one fellow each.
“We see the need intimately because we are involved exclusively in the immigration field,” Fragomen partner Michael Patrick said in an interview. “It was for us a no-brainer. We knew right away the difference that each fellow is going to make in the lives of hundreds of people each year.”
Patrick said while most Americans take the right to counsel for granted, people are often shocked to discover that there is no corresponding right for people who are detained on suspicion of being in this country illegally.
“Most Americans cannot believe that you not only can be held for a couple of nights without the representation of a lawyer, but for a couple of years,” Patrick said.
A luncheon was sponsored by the fellows of the American Bar Foundation last week at Sullivan & Worcester to introduce the program to the legal community, including managing partners of firms and corporate counsel.
Katzmann, Markowitz, Austin Fragomen, and American Bar Association president James Silkenat were among those who urged attendees to support the initiative.
The first class of fellows were selected from 400 applicants.
Seven were born outside of the United States and two others born in the United States had parents or grandparents who were immigrants.
Faiza Sayed of Columbia Law School said on the Justice Corps website that her family benefited from legal help from a non-profit organization after emigrating to Canada and then to the United States from Pakistan.
Luis Mancheno, a graduate of Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island, won asylum in the United States after fleeing persecution in Ecuador.
Other fellows grew up in areas with large immigrant populations.
Karla Ostolaza, who comes from Puerto Rico, said she wants to continue the training she received at Cardozo’s immigration clinic.
“I see myself doing this for the long run,” she said in an interview. “I think this is the dream opportunity, at least for me and the others who are in the program I have talked to. This is really a dream job and is quite a privilege.”