Judge Proposes a National Lawyers Corps to Help Immigrants

By Kirk Semple

March 19, 2013 New York Times - As Congress takes up immigration reform, Robert A. Katzmann, a federal appellate judge in New York, has been looking beyond the debates and envisioning a crisis.

If legislation should pass that would provide a path to legal status for the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, he wonders, where would they turn for legal assistance to help apply for visas, green cards and citizenship?

He has been voicing this concern in recent meetings with officials in New York and Washington — and trying to gather support for his solution.

“There’s kind of a myth in the air that we’ll have reform and the problem will go away,” Judge Katzmann warned. “Implementation tends to be an afterthought.”

As a result, he wants to create what he describes as an immigrant justice corps that will recruit and train young lawyers, and then will send them around the country to work at community organizations eager for legal help.

The program would echo existing public service programs like AmeriCorps VISTA and the Peace Corps, he said.

Judge Katzmann said he would welcome government financing, though he acknowledged that it was far more likely that the project would begin with private money.

He estimated that he would need $5 million to support the program for a year, deploying 50 young immigration lawyers every two months for two-year stints.

For the past several years, the judge has been trying to draw attention to the chronic problem of inadequate legal representation for immigrants. The problem, he said, has acquired even greater urgency with the talk of immigration reform.

In 2010, Judge Katzmann, who was appointed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton, helped to convene a group of lawyers, academics and immigrants’ advocates to study the issue in New York City.

Last year, the group proposed creating a network of existing legal service providers in the New York region that would provide lawyers for all low-income immigrant detainees facing deportation.

Judge Katzmann’s new proposal would establish a program with national scope.

The justices corps would pair retired lawyers with young ones, including those fresh out of law school and those who are early in their careers. It would give young lawyers work in a tight job market and harness the experience of retired lawyers who are not yet ready to put down their legal pads for good.

He has gathered support for the project from officials, lawyers, academics and immigrants’ advocates, but is still trying to round up financing.

Lindsay Nash, a fellow at the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said the justice corps would address a growing interest in immigration and public interest law among young lawyers at a time when it is far more challenging to find jobs in the nonprofit sector than in the private one.

She said the justice corps would give rookie lawyers “hands-on experience with clients and in the courtroom” that they probably would not have as first-year lawyers at big private firms.

Richard L. Revesz, dean of the New York University School of Law, called the project “a spectacular concept,” and said his university could conceivably provide office and classroom space for the corps as well as expertise.

But, he added, the operational costs would have to come from another source. “The question is,” Professor Revesz said, “whether the right funders could step forward to make it feasible.”