NYSBA Members Fight for Immigrant Representation
The New York State Bar Association strives to promote equal access to justice for all, and NYSBA members’ zealous advocacy for immigrants is one-way attorneys work to achieve that ideal.
Shayna Kessler and Steve Yale-Loehr, co-chairs of NYSBA’s Immigration Representation Committee, focus on education and advocacy to improve the plight of immigrants. The committee hosted several CLE webinars in 2021 and 2022 to train NYSBA members in the fundamentals of immigration law.
“We try to encourage more members to work pro bono for immigrants, and Shayna has been particularly active in trying to work on funding issues and legislative issues to make it easier to get representation for immigrants in New York State,” says Yale-Loehr, who is a Cornell Law School professor. “Immigrants are not guaranteed an attorney. Over half of all immigrants don’t have a lawyer, and immigration law is one of the most complex areas of law in the country. For asylum seekers, it can be a life and death decision.”
Law School Clinics Fill in the Gap
Immigration work is one of the areas highlighted in this year’s NYSBA pro bono awards. Albany Law School’s Immigration Law Pro Bono Society is one recipient of the 2022 President’s Pro Bono Service Awards. The group is recognized for its innovative clinical program working with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) and Immigrant-ARC.
Jake Mantey, Albany Law School ‘22 recruited and trained more than three dozen student volunteers to help in the immigration clinic this year. Working with USCRI’s legal team, the law students conducted over 200 legal screening of Afghan refugees who have resettled in the capital region.
Mantey says he is drawn to immigration law to help those who are often scapegoated. “I think it’s a prominent area where you can have a lot of impact that’s tangible and it means a lot to disadvantaged people.”
NYSBA members Albany Law Professors Sarah Rogerson and Lauren DesRosiers support the students clinical work on behalf of immigrants. “There’s something deeply fulfilling about assisting groups of individuals that are consistently set aside by political winds on both sides of the political ideology,” Rogerson says. “Immigrants are consistently overlooked when it comes to national policy and consistently demonized after 9/11. I saw that very clearly as a law student.”
DesRosiers was excited to join the Justice Center at Albany Law School’s Immigration Clinic to work alongside Rogerson.
“I saw it as a really great opportunity to work with students, get them excited about doing immigration work and also simultaneously be able to serve clients in the community,” she says.
Yale-Loehr says his best days are when former students reach out to him about pro bono immigration work, having learned those skills from Cornell’s immigration law clinics.
“It keeps me going,” he says.
Recognizing Secondary Trauma
Immigrants and asylum seekers are often victims of torture and abuse and hearing their stories can cause a secondary trauma for lawyers. Recognizing the impact is central to the students’ clinical work at both Albany Law and Cornell.
“There are recognized techniques that psychologists and psychiatrists use not just in immigration, but in any traumatic situations like terrorism, domestic violence cases or criminal cases. All of these sensitive cases can raise secondary trauma issues and now it’s getting more integrated in the curriculum,” Yale-Loehr says.
Mantey focused on community care during the work of Albany Law’s Immigration Law Pro Bono Society. He provided time and space for student volunteers to talk about their shared experiences. “We look out for each other’s mental health because doing this type of stuff is very taxing. A lot of people don’t want to get involved in such horrific stories,” Mantey says.
Earlier this year, NYSBA and the Immigration Representation Committee provided a free event on recognizing secondary trauma. You can see the event here.
Legislative Action on Immigrant Rights to Representation
The right to immigrant representation is one of NYSBA’s legislative priorities for 2022. NYSBA scored a victory this month with the Legislature’s approval of increased funding for legal services from $16 million to $20 million. Kessler hopes the funding will spur momentum for supporting mandated legal representation for immigrants in New York.
“We can model immigration policy that is welcoming and centers on human dignity, that ensures that immigrants, faced with federal immigration enforcement have the support of their state,” she says.
Kessler and Yale-Loehr believe that the plight of immigrants must be considered for the recovery from the COVID 19 pandemic to be equitable.
“The enormous amount of danger and lack of safety and lack of healthcare precautions for people who are in detention is terrifying,” Kessler says. “We’re seeing immigrants who are disproportionately essential workers continuing to face a year of family separation, of detention and deportation even while working on the front lines of the pandemic.”
NYSBA Involvement Is a Lifeline
Rogerson says membership in the New York State Bar Association is a key element in Albany Law’s clinical success. “The State Bar provides a network and platform for us to collaborate more effectively. NYSBA has been critical in terms of these pop-up clinics — getting the word out to volunteers and funneling people power,” she says.
DesRosiers agrees, saying the association excels at building community. “Having a network of really informed engaged attorneys is just so key and NYSBA is so great at developing and supporting that network.”