Within hours of Donald Trump’s election, tens of thousands (literally) of lawyer across the country began organizing to oppose his anticipated policies, whatever those may be. Groups are forming on Facebook and meetings are being scheduled. It’s all very preliminary, but it’s quite clear that if Mr. Trump’s policies equal his harsh campaign rhetoric, attorneys across the U.S. will be prepared to contest those policies in court.
Of course, one key area of concern is immigration. Mr. Trump has vowed to build a wall, return Syrian refugees, deport criminal aliens, subject Muslim immigrants and visitors to “extreme vetting,” and end “catch and release” at the border.
At this point, it is quite unclear to me what he (1) will do, and (2) can do. Some actions against non-citizens are easier than others. For example, Mr. Trump can enact certain changes without Congressional involvement (diverting resources away from the asylum system, charging a (limited) fee for asylum, eliminating work permits for asylum applicants, and–to a large extent–restricting the definition of particular social group). Other changes require Congressional action (modifying the burden of proof on asylum seekers, blocking asylum seekers who came to the U.S. by passing through a third country, and reducing the one-year time period aliens have to file for asylum after they’ve entered the country). Finally, some changes would require a Constitutional amendment (eliminating due process for non-citizens). So where do lawyers come in? What can we do?
The way I see it, there are three broad areas where lawyers can help: Litigation, lobbying, and public relations. Let’s take a look at each:
Litigation: This is what (many) lawyers do. We represent our clients in court. As it stands now, most non-citizens in Immigration Court do not have an attorney. If deportation cases are stepped up, it’s unclear whether the Immigration Courts can handle the volume (currently, there are about 11,000,000 illegal aliens in the U.S. In FY 2015, the country’s Immigration Judge’s completed almost 200,000 cases. At that rate, it would take over 55 years to resolve the cases of everyone here unlawfully).
It’s well-established that aliens who have an attorney are more likely to win their cases. Indeed, unrepresented asylum seekers win their cases only about 9% of the time. Represented asylum seekers win nearly 50% of their cases. So hopefully, some of our organizational energy will go towards increasing the percentage of represented aliens by providing more pro bono and low bono services–currently, only about 2% of people in Immigration Court have pro bono representation. Perhaps we can also volunteer to present more know-your-rights presentations, so that aliens without lawyers can at least get some help with their cases.
Another benefit of more aliens actively fighting their cases is that it will require more government resources–and time–to deport them. This will slow the system down and prevent the government from deporting more people (normally, I would not consider “slowing the system down” as a “benefit,” but in these times, perhaps it is).
On a higher level is impact litigation–lawsuits to challenge policies that affect many immigrants. I imagine the national organizations, such as AILA, AIC, and the ACLU, among others, will take the lead here. They have the resources and the expertise. By supporting such organizations with our time and our donations, we aid their efforts to block egregious changes to our immigration system.
Lobbying: Lawyers can be effective lobbyists. We know the law, and we know how the law affects non-citizens and their families at the ground level. This type of hands-on experience allows us to talk to law-makers, at the national level, and also at the state and local levels.
Opponents of immigration and refugee admissions are known for their active and passionate lobbying, and we lawyers need to participate with pro-immigration groups to present the other side of the story. I am convinced that when lawmakers hear from real people–people like our clients and their family members–they can be moved. Indeed, before he was a candidate, Donald Trump met with Dream Act activists and told them, “You convinced me.” If such stories can impact Mr. Trump (at least temporarily), they may be able to affect our country’s legislators.
Public Relations: I’ve written about this before, but over the past 20+ years, there has been a growing disconnect between the development of the immigration law, on the one hand, and the “will of the People,” on the other. Through litigation and presidential action, laws have been expanded to benefit more and more aliens–victims of FGM and domestic violence, Dream Act immigrants, unaccompanied minors–without input from “the People” (i.e., Congress).
As one who represents non-citizens, I certainly will not apologize for helping my clients. That is my duty as an attorney. However, I feel that we as immigration advocates need to work harder to build support for more pro-immigrant policies. This involves making our case directly to the American people. If our countrymen had a better idea about who our clients are, why they come here, and how they benefit our nation, I believe that many of them would favor a more open policy towards immigrants.
As I said in the beginning, all this is a quite preliminary. Although Mr. Trump’s rhetoric–and some of his cabinet choices–seem ominous, we really do not know his plans. Nevertheless, it makes sense to start organizing now, so we are prepared for any eventuality.
In his play Henry the Sixth, Shakespeare’s character Dick the Butcher famously intones, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The context of that quote is often forgotten. Dick is a follower of Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne of England and a populist. For Jack to take control, law and order must be subverted, and this requires getting the lawyers out of the way. In our own time too, we attorneys stand between a populist and his possible victims, but judging by the early organizing efforts, I have little doubt that we will stand firm.