In the next several days, the deans of the nation’s top law schools will be notified of a new job opportunity for their graduating students. Applicants must be high achievers who want to be part of a groundbreaking start-up, live in New York City, train with veteran lawyers and help create a new paradigm in immigration representation.
The call comes from the Immigrant Justice Corps, a new group that received a life-giving injection on Tuesday when the board of the Robin Hood Foundation, a poverty-fighting philanthropy, approved more than $1.3 million in funding.
The initiative is the long-nurtured idea of Robert A. Katzmann, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, who has for years campaigned to redress a grave problem: the shortage of competent legal representation for immigrants, particularly those of modest means facing deportation.
The group’s plan is to recruit 25 graduating law students or recent graduates, immerse them in immigration law and then farm them out to community-based organizations. The young lawyers would commit to at least two years of service and as many as three.
“It’s a very simple concept, but it’s one that will not only ensure fairness for immigrants but will infuse our legal system with a generation of lawyers committed to serving those in need,” said Judge Katzmann, whose father was a refugee from Nazi Germany and whose maternal grandparents were immigrants from Russia.
The corps intends to hire a cadre of 25 lawyers every year, each earning a salary of $47,000 plus benefits. They will be assisted by recent college graduates with multilingual skills who will handle less complex cases, such as naturalization applications. The team will be supervised by a group of staff lawyers and advised by veteran lawyers.
Organizers estimate that by the third year, the corps will be handling nearly 15,000 cases a year, about double the number of immigration cases currently overseen by nonprofit organizations in New York City.
Robin Hood’s grants, while enough to get the initiative off the ground, will cover only a fraction of the project’s operating costs, which are expected to total about $4 million in the first year and about $7 million in each successive year.
But foundation officials and corps board members anticipate that they will be able to raise money from other foundations as well as philanthropists and the government.
During an interview this month, with the foundation’s approval nearly certain, Judge Katzmann turned emotional.
“The dream is about to come true, after lots of hopes and some disappointments,” he said, pausing for a moment. “I’m choked up as I’m thinking about it.”
In 2007, deeply concerned about the quality and availability of representation for immigrants, he sounded a clarion call and started a study group that investigated the issue’s impact on immigrant populations. Among its findings: Most detained immigrants in the New York region did not have counsel at the time their cases were completed.
Judge Katzmann and his allies have warned that, absent new programs, the problem would grow worse should Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform providing legal status for undocumented immigrants.
The study group spawned an initiative, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which seeks to provide legal representation for every poor immigrant facing deportation in New York.
But Judge Katzmann pressed for more: a national army of young lawyers in the style of public service programs like AmeriCorps Vista or the Peace Corps.
Robin Hood heard about the idea last spring and agreed to fund a planning process. Organizers decided to limit the project to New York City, at least until it had sufficient funding to expand nationally.
Nisha Agarwal, the executive director of the Immigrant Justice Corps, views the pilot project as something that could be replicated in other cities with large immigrant populations, and as a kind of feeder system for legal talent. “Maybe these fellows will leave these fellowships and go elsewhere in the country,” she said, “and be leaders in immigrant representation.”
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