Former judges create legal aid campaign for immigrants

Emergency fundraiser to benefit full-service legal clinics

By Mary E. O'Leary
New Haven Register

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - The former judge could either keep talking back to the radio broadcast or figure out a way to change the situation that was the source of his angst.

Robert L. Holzberg, a partner at Pullman & Comley in Hartford, was listening to accounts of two legal clinics in reuniting families whose children had been taken from them at the U.S.-Mexican border as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy.

The children had been detained at Noank Community Support Services Inc., a nonprofit in Groton, which has a contract with the government.

Holzberg, who retired as a Superior Court judge in 2012, said he was following the story of the 2,300 family separations with a "mixture of frustration, anger and a feeling of impotence. It raised a question for me that there must be something we could do."

The federal court win by the Workers and Immigrants Rights Advocacy Clinic at the Yale Law School, in conjunction with Connecticut Legal Services, was a great victory, but Holzberg wanted to impact one of the underlying fault lines in these cases.

With no guarantee to counsel in civil matters, the majority of immigrants are facing deportation without the benefit of an attorney, he said, which undermines due process and is a national problem.

Holzberg said he called retired Connecticut Justice Chase Rogers and together they launched the Connecticut Lawyers for Immigration Justice campaign.

"Everyone who seeks asylum in this country should have their status adjudicated with due process protections, including the assistance of counsel," Rogers said in a statement.

The emergency fundraiser will benefit the three full-service legal clinics that represent low-income clients so they can start to respond to the exponential increase in immigration cases in Connecticut.

The clinics also provide legal advice in housing matters and wage disputes.

Holzberg said the campaign to raise significant funds, which has already received pledges of support, will be open-ended with all the money sent to the clinics. Mailings will be sent to all Connecticut bar members shortly.

At the clinics' request, the funds will be used to expand staff; bring in experts and underwrite conferencing equipment so they can communicate with detained clients.

In addition to Connecticut Legal Services, the other two are the New Haven Legal Assistance Association and Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

There are just under a dozen communities across the country that budget public funding specifically for attorneys to provide pro bono assistance to immigrants facing deportation. Connecticut is not among that group.

This kind of direct support is led by New York, where both the city and state provide funding of about $11 million.

The Vera Institute of Justice in New York has projected that 48 percent of deportation cases will win the right for immigrants to remain in this country when supported by an attorney. This compares to a 4 percent success rate for those without counsel.

Holzberg said he would like to see every immigrant facing deportation in Connecticut given the kind of advocacy that won the case represented by Connecticut Legal Services and the Yale Law clinic. The two groups said working with local advocates could be a model for other nonprofits around the country supporting immigration cases.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Victor Bolden is the first in the nation to find that separation of families at the border violates the constitutional rights of children, as well as their parents.

-Connecticut approach to reuniting immigrant families seen as model for country

-Obama nominates New Haven corporation counsel Victor Bolden to...

The children in the case were a 14-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy, from separate families, who were taken from their parents in Texas detention centers with no warning. Both of them have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome connected to the separations.

Deborah Witkin, the executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, said the three clinics since 2001 have worked on 3,245 immigration cases. She said in 2016 they had 162 cases, 419 in 2017 and are already at 400 cases by this August.

"The need has swollen," Witkin said. She said generally the clinics can only help about one-quarter of the people who contact them. "We don't have the resources."

Witkin said each new federal administration has its own priorities when it comes to immigration.

"It is an ever-changing landscape that is pretty much impossible to navigate without an attorney," she said.

Witkin said Connecticut Legal Services, which is the largest of the three, taps about 50 active fund-raisers, as well as grants and foundations, to support its operation.

Also, they all get a percentage of the interest on lawyer's accounts held in trust for clients as well as a percentage of court filing fees.

Witkin said in 2017, the Immigration Court in Hartford heard 1,883 new deportation cases with 31 percent of the defendants arriving without an attorney, almost 600 people.

The immigration cases cover many issues from asylum cases to special consideration for victims of crime, particularly domestic abuse, as well as protections for unaccompanied children and Special Immigrant Juvenile status cases that involve both probate and immigration courts.

She characterized the state as "extremely supportive" of the efforts of the legal services groups.

Alexis Smith, executive director at New Haven Legal Assistance Association, said immigration law is specific and technical and her agency works closely with the sanctuary advocates.

She said it is shocking that there is no requirement for legal representation for deportation cases given the high stakes.

Smith said there are an increasing number of people being held in detention in a private prison in Massachusetts, pending appeal. Often they can give them advice, but have to suggest other counsel for lack of resources.

This office, like the other two, covers the game of cases and applications, including U visas available to immigrants who cooperate with police on criminal prosecutions. There is a huge backlog, however, and only so many are heard in a given year.

"We look forward to the time when Connecticut joins New York and other jurisdictions in providing direct state support for immigrants facing deportation. Until then, we are grateful for the strong support of the bar - and of other friends of justice across the state," Smith said in an earlier statement.

Jamey Bell, the executive director of Greater Hartford Legal Aid, said: "Every day, legal services lawyers help immigrant crime victims seeking protection under the Violence Against Women Act. We help immigrant children who have been abandoned obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status. I'm so proud of that important work. But we don't have the capacity to meet the demand. This campaign will make a critically important difference."

Published: Wed, Aug 22, 2018