The Proskauer corporate social responsibility and pro bono blog

Pro Bono for Immigrant Families: Seeking Asylum in the U.S. from Mexico

Since my trip to the U.S./Mexico border last summer, the situation for families seeking asylum has only become more challenging, especially in light of the Administration’s new “Remain in Mexico” policy.  This week, I am in Mexico along with Proskauer colleagues, Valarie McPherson, special immigration counsel, and Savannah Sosa, a project assistant.  We are providing asylum presentations and individual consultations in partnership with Institute for Women in Migration, IMUMI (www.imumi.org).

The new policy raises a number of questions, but first some background.

The Remain in Mexico Policy

On December 20, 2018, the Administration announced that it would begin implementing a “Remain in Mexico” policy – officially dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – which requires asylum-seekers from Central America at the southern border to wait in Mexico for the duration of their U.S. immigration proceedings.  This marks a fundamental shift in asylum policy because, until now, asylum-seekers who lack valid entry documentation generally have been placed in expedited removal proceedings.  Applicants who passed a credible fear interview were then allowed to remain in the U.S., pending immigration court proceedings. Continue Reading

Responding to New Challenges for LGBTQ Asylum Seekers

It is either a crime or fundamentally unsafe to be LGBTQ in more than 80 countries around the world. For the LGBTQ individuals forced to flee such conditions, seeking asylum in the United States is an opportunity to lead authentic lives safe from emotional harm and physical violence.

However, due to recent legal and policy developments, LGBTQ asylum seekers are facing new challenges as they struggle to navigate the U.S. immigration system. During a recent panel presentation at Proskauer’s New York office, Immigration Equality—the nation’s leading LGBTQ immigrant rights organization—teamed up with Bloomberg LP and Proskauer to educate pro bono lawyers about these developments and enable them to represent LGBTQ asylum seekers.

Immigration Equality’s Executive Director, Aaron Morris, began the program by describing the harmful effects expected to result from the “Presidential Memorandum on Additional Measures to Enhance Border Security and Restore Integrity to Our Immigration System” issued on April 29, 2019. This memorandum orders the Attorney General and the Department of Homeland Security to impose a filing fee for asylum applications and initial employment authorization applications filed by asylum seekers. At present, there is no fee for these applications. The memorandum also directs that asylum applicants who “entered or attempted to enter the United States unlawfully” should be barred from receiving employment authorization while their asylum applications remain pending. These policy changes, if implemented, will cause significant hardship for LGBTQ immigrants fleeing persecution, many of whom are unable to afford filing fees and will struggle to support themselves in the U.S. if they are not permitted to work lawfully here. Continue Reading

Proskauer Pro Bono Client Judith Clark Granted Parole

A Proskauer team recently succeeded in obtaining parole on behalf of 69-year-old pro bono client Judith Clark, who has been in prison for nearly 38 years.  This case may play an important role in effecting much needed parole reform in New York. Personally, it has been among the most satisfying cases on which I have ever worked.

Judith was the getaway driver for the infamous 1981 Brinks robbery that resulted in the killings of two police officers and a Brinks guard, and was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison.  Judith’s transformation from radical revolutionary to a completely rehabilitated person began in the mid-1980s.  Since then, she has devoted herself to helping others.  Her efforts included starting an AIDS counseling program for prisoners that was copied nationwide, building a prison college program (and earning two degrees), helping to run her prison’s infant care center for incarcerated mothers, training more than a dozen dogs to help wounded veterans and law enforcement, and individually mentoring and counseling hundreds of women to help them turn their lives around.  After personally interviewing Judith in 2016, Governor Cuomo granted her clemency, thereby making her eligible for parole. Continue Reading

Making a Difference for Families with Disabled Children

For low-income families with disabled children, receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits is critically important to the safety and security of their households.  Navigating the difficult claims process without legal counsel, however, too often leads to the wrong result.  This was exactly the case for one immigrant mother who—after a painful and complicated divorce—was unable to afford medical treatments for her 14-year-old son suffering from ADHD. After an unsuccessful first attempt to apply for SSI benefits, she sought help from Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), which paired her with a team of Proskauer lawyers who secured the benefits that she and her son desperately needed and deserved.

The Proskauer team, led by corporate associate Ben Sacks, was tasked with meeting the stringent criteria for SSI benefits. In order to qualify, an applicant must establish both medical documentation for the disability and evidence of limitations. In the case of applicants with ADHD, judges typically look to academic records when considering limitations.  This created a challenge for our client who had good grades—particularly in math—but was struggling in other ways at school. Ben and the Proskauer team understood that they had to make clear that academic records were the wrong measure of how ADHD impacted this boy’s life.  The argument was thus re-centered around the other struggles he had in school, such as ploys for attention, lack of focus in class despite his good grades, and issues outside of the classroom. Continue Reading

Mentoring in Public Schools with Read Ahead

There are more than one million students enrolled in New York City public schools, making it the largest school system in the United States. Yet each student enrolled is unique and enters school each day with varying needs. Thus, there is a general consensus that providing targeted and individualized support to students is crucial to their academic success. Furthermore, implementing this support early in their education can impact students during critical stages in their development and benefit their academic performance for years to come.

Since 2015, I have served on the junior board for Read Ahead, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that New York City elementary school students have the skills they need for academic and life-long success. Read Ahead’s program is centered on one-on-one lunchtime reading-based mentoring sessions between students and volunteer mentors. Students are recommended by their teachers or school staff to participate in the program because they are reading below grade level, English Language Learners, or in need of social or emotional support to boost their self-confidence, their classroom performance, or their interest in reading. Continue Reading

The Right to Counsel in Civil Proceedings: An International Perspective

In the United States, people of limited means suffer a tremendous unmet need for legal services in civil proceedings. Why does the United States fall so far behind in providing that service in comparison with other western democracies?

Background on the Right to Counsel

In 1963, the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Sixth Amendment decision requiring that states provide legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants. No such right to counsel, however, has been established in civil proceedings despite the fact that for many low-income individuals, the outcome of certain civil legal proceedings can have an impact as significant, lasting, and life-altering as some criminal cases.

In the absence of a federally recognized right to counsel in civil matters, state and local authorities have been primarily responsible for protecting the rights of low-income individuals in civil proceedings where they see fit.  As a result, the provision of free legal services differs greatly from state to state, and even within a given state.

A 2017 study demonstrated that 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem that year, including health care, housing conditions, veterans’ benefits, disability access, and domestic violence matters. In 86% of those civil legal problems, low-income Americans “received inadequate or no legal help.” In addition, in over three-fourths of all civil trials in the United States, at least one litigant does not have legal representation. Continue Reading

The Proposal to Simplify New York’s Court Structure

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s call during her recent state of the judiciary address to “modernize” New York’s court system by reforming its complicated structure, has energized a growing grassroots effort across the state.  Since her speech at the end of February, dozens of groups and organizations, including representatives from a wide variety of New York State business associations, good government groups, advocates against domestic violence, legal service providers and bar associations, have come together to form a coalition for court simplification. Legislators are also now focusing on the issue.  State Senator Brad Hoylman, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, recently told The New York Law Journal, “I’m actually digging into the issue and figuring out a way to hold hearings and move these proposals forward.”

The current court structure — made up of 11 separate trial courts with varying jurisdictions — is complex and costly, and adversely affects all litigants, both private citizens and businesses. It especially impacts the poor and unrepresented, who are expected to navigate the limited jurisdiction of these different courts with their different procedures and rules, in order to pursue claims (or defend against them) simultaneously in more than one forum. For example, matrimonial matters may not be heard in Family Court but only in Supreme Court, thereby leaving families with no choice but to litigate related issues in both courts simultaneously.  Should there be any criminal or housing issues involved as well, those would have to be resolved in two other courts. Similarly, claims seeking damages against the state can only be heard in the Court of Claims, which has no jurisdiction over any city, county, or town government, or over any individual defendant.  Continue Reading

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