Shira Scheindlin, retired United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York (Photo by Matt Furman).
Shira Scheindlin, retired United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York (Photo by Matt Furman). ()

Spurred on by President Trump’s deportation priorities, a group of big-firm lawyers and nonprofit attorneys has launched a project to represent immigrants nationwide who are at risk for deportation and already has distributed a mass letter to hundreds of large firms seeking donations and pro bono work.

The American Immigrant Representation Project, formed shortly after Trump’s election, on Friday wrote to more than 300 lawyers, mostly at Am Law 200 firms and plaintiff firms, spelling out the need for resources and volunteers. The letter asks firms to commit $10,000 and/or designate a partner and three associates who will develop an expertise in the field through the initiative’s training and represent those targeted for removal.

“The immigration defense community desperately needs the help of the private bar,” the letter said. “We expect thousands of people will need representation, most of whom will be unable to locate or afford counsel.

The letter noted immigrants with counsel are 14 times more likely to successfully challenge removal than those without. “Our vision is to stand ready to provide representation to all those in need.”

The project’s steering committee includes former Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin, of counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan; Faith Gay, partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan; Michael Patrick, a retired partner at immigration firm Fragomen Del Rey Bernsen & Loewy; Marjorie Peerce, a partner at Ballard Spahr; Lenni Benson, professor at New York Law School; and attorneys from firms such as Sidley Austin; Curtis, Mallet-Provost, Colt & Mosle; Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton; and Immigrant Law Group LLP.

The steering committee also includes lawyers from the immigration defense community, the criminal defense community and public interest groups, including Justice Corps., a Federal Public Defender office, Immigration Law Resource Center, American Immigration Council, Immigrant Defense Project , the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, American Immigration Justice and the American Immigration Law Association.

The initiative aims to recruit a large pool of volunteer lawyers who can represent immigrants in removal proceedings, even if the pro bono attorneys initially have no experience in the area.

The steering committee has partnered with public interest groups that specialize in removal proceedings to help train and supervise volunteer attorneys from law firms. The project intends to offer training through lectures, webinars, a document library and a help desk.

Although several public interest legal groups and law school clinics already help immigrants, steering committee members say these groups are short on resources and funding for training, and need more volunteer attorneys nationwide.

Citing the need for law firms’ contributions, the letter said “removal cases are extraordinarily difficult.” The law is stacked against detainees, the steering committee says: Deportation facilities often are in remote areas under-served by the bar, the number of detention facilities has grown to more than 200, many facilities have poor conditions of confinement and are hostile to lawyers, and detainees have language barriers.

The steering committee anticipates needing an initial budget of $1 million to launch. Funding will help in training, intake and monitoring, and allow a project manager to coordinate efforts.

The letter asks lawyers to say whether they can participate by Feb. 17.

In an interview about the letter, Gay said many lawyers already have said they would contribute at least the minimum request. She said her firm, Quinn Emanuel, is contributing at least $150,000.

Gay said more letters are going out in the next week to corporations and foundations, among others, and she hopes the effort will be up and running in a week or so.

Scheindlin and Gay said the initiative was a response to immigration priorities Trump announced during the campaign, such as promises to create a special “deportation task force” and to target “millions of recent illegal arrivals.”

The project has taken on new urgency and accelerated after Trump signed a Jan. 25 executive order that appears to give authorities wide discretion in deportation, Gay said.

The order—signed two days before the executive order that targeted refugees arriving in the U.S. —said the government can prioritize for removal immigrants whom agents believe “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” without a conviction, and those who pose a risk to public safety “in the judgment of an immigration officer.”

“It’s a very vague standard, it allows a lot of discretion by law enforcement,” Gay said. “Under those circumstances, it seems to be that everyone needs counsel. These are deemed civil proceedings but they have enormous stakes,” she said, citing removal from the country and immigrants’ jobs and families.

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