The last four years of the Trump Era have been a whirlwind for immigration lawyers on the frontline.   We’ve done pro bono work in countless hours starting from the Muslim ban airports across America, to helping separated families and everything in between. And while our practices faced peak stress, it became more and more difficult to give time pro bono.  But necessity is the mother of invention and here’s the story of a legal innovation that I believe must be taken into the future nationally.

In the Washington State AILA chapter (AILAWA) of immigration attorneys, 25% of our membership repeatedly donated time to pro bono needs over the last four years.  Starting in January 2017 when more than 50 members joined the Airport Lawyer roster that was being led by the law firm Lane Powell, our chapter members gave time to legal clinics and made Know Your Rights presentations incessantly over the next 18 months. Numbers would range between one and ten lawyers at a time for such clinics. And when Washington State received over 200 immigrants from the Southern border in June 2018, many of whom were parents separated from children, AILAWA members stepped up again when more than 50 signed up to help the efforts lead by the fantastic Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP). All pro bono. We were organized, devoted, committed. At the same time, we were being drained of energy, resources and goodwill. It seemed like the needs never ended as the Trump administration kept the terrible policies coming.

As time went by, it was clear to me that our members needed some form of compensation. It wasn’t fair to keep asking lawyers to donate time when they had bills of their own to pay, and their own work that needed attention with limited hours in the day.

This realization led to the creation of WIDEN– Washington Immigrant Defense Network, a non-profit that pays a stipend to immigration lawyers for taking detained trials. You can read about the genesis of WIDEN in my book Legal Heroes in the Trump Era.  But what I realized after the creation of WIDEN is that a stipend model could also address the worsening distress being faced by neighborhood legal clinics due to the lack of immigration counsel.  With critical urgent needs emerging all the time, immigration attorneys couldn’t also attend legal clinics regularly, as they used to.

The pilot program for ‘stipend-ed’ legal clinics began at a small community legal clinic in Bellevue, Washington.  The Indian Association of Western Washington (IAWW) holds monthly clinics for their members. The Director of IAWW Lalita Uppala, also a Commissioner of the King County Immigrant and Refugee Commission, is well versed in both the policy challenges as well as the grassroots practical challenges.  When she approached me to find lawyers for her clinic, she opened with the fact that she had already raised funds for lawyers. Since I had been waiting for a moment like this, I jumped to it and helped her fill a roster for 18 months. All lawyers were paid a stipend for their time and expertise. This pilot program was so successful, that in 2021, the clinic was able to raise double the funds and add double the lawyers to the roster!

But what is even more amazing, is that the City of Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), which has been a tremendous strength for the immigrant community in Seattle,  in collaboration with AILAWA, and the King County Bar Association (KCBA) was able to build out the pilot program on a larger scale.  OIRA funded the program, KCBA administered the clinics, and AILAWA members provided the legal expertise.  This model established five virtual legal clinics between August and December 2020. About 80 AILAWA members signed up initially and received virtual training on procedural steps for the program and substantive law.   Subsequently, over 50 lawyers provided legal assistance through 77 virtual shifts. Of the 200 or so immigrants who signed up, 165 received consultations. And, in the end, over 80% of the clients had immigration options.

This new and unique model is being hailed as a Legal Innovation.

A heartfelt thank you to Cuc Vu, Director of OIRA, Oksana Bilobran, Legal Defense Policy and Program Specialist (also an AILAWA member) and Aaliyah Gupta, Consultant OIRA for their exemplary and visionary leadership.  Thank you to Anne Daly who was Acting Director of KCBA at the time and stepped up immediately upon learning of this effort.   Thank you to Sarah Villegas at KCBA for developing and implementing new procedures for this creation.  To Alex Askerov and Divya Seth for their tireless volunteerism. Thank you to all the AILAWA members for their incredible dedication to our community, not just for these clinics but over the last four years. And finally, thank you to Michele Carney, former AILAWA Chair and my partner-in goodness in all the work we have done with the Response Committee.

As we are all breathing a sigh of relief during this first 100 days of the Biden Harris administration, knowing that even with so many policies that need reversing and modernizing, access to justice and right to counsel is most definitely at the top of the list.  A new era brings with it the opportunity to create new and innovative solutions to chronic problems.

Immigration law is the right place for this type of model. The work is more complex and stressful than most practice areas, the clients are in dire need with no right to representation, their chances of success are abominable without legal advice, and there are stakeholders who would financially back the mission. Even though we have a new administration, all of those factors don’t go away, even if immigration law is reformed. I encourage my fellow AILA members to take a look at their local area and see if this model might work. The Washington State Chapter of AILA and the City of Seattle are shining examples of creative problem solving that can and must be part of the national solution as these discussions take shape.