Immigrants have difficulty finding qualified lawyers, says State Bar

June 26, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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The New York State Bar Association yesterday issued a report that spotlights a crisis in the quality and availability of legal representation of immigrants in New York and makes recommendations for improvement, including written standards for immigration representation.

The report of the Special Committee on Immigration Representation cites a "dire" shortage of attorneys qualified in immigration issues, insufficient safeguards to protect immigrants from unauthorized or unqualified practitioners, and the need for more educational programs and pro bono participation to assist low-income immigrants.

The report singles out amendments made to federal immigration laws in 1996 relating to terrorism and illegal immigration as having "contributed significantly" to the current crisis.

"The 1996 amendments, which imposed draconian consequences on unsuspecting immigrants, have made the provision of competent legal representation an overwhelming and daunting task," the report states.

Immigrants subjected to immigration removal proceedings often cannot afford to retain adequate legal representation, do not know how to obtain it, or are ill-equipped to represent themselves, according to the report. Language issues and cultural differences may exacerbate the problems, leaving some non-citizens vulnerable to unscrupulous or unqualified representation.

"Individuals in immigration proceedings face mandatory detention, deportation, and often permanent expulsion from the United States because they lack competent legal representation," said Bar Association President Seymour W. James Jr.  "New minimum standards for representation, along with statutory reform and adequate funding, will go a long way toward helping these individuals."

The Association recommends a voluntary set of written standards for representation of immigration cases to complement existing rules and standards. Those standards include:

  • Defining the role of representatives in immigration cases to ensure competent representation that requires clients to be adequately informed of their options for relief and defense.
  • Establishing standards for training and experience, including mandatory Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses and a regimen of training and course-related education specific to the area of immigration law.
  • Limitations on caseloads that allow attorneys to satisfy their legal and ethical obligations and ensure that clients receive "competent, quality" representation.

The recommendations also outline attorney responsibilities regarding the scope of their representation and any potential conflicts, standards for imposition and collection of fees, and duties regarding maintenance of files.

The association recommends efforts to boost representation through more pro bono service by attorneys; the distribution of pro se educational materials for inmates; legal training for attorneys sponsored by bar associations; fellowships; and other innovative measures such as videoconferencing for inmate screening and preparation of cases.

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