I have a modest proposal to begin addressing the civil access-to-justice problem in the United States: eliminate the barriers for refugees to provide legal representation. In discussions of access to civil justice, immigration and immigrant rights compel our attention—images of children as young as three facing deportation without representation and non-citizens detained because of civil immigration infractions come to mind. But we hear less about the access-to-justice challenges of immigrants fighting for their rights to safe housing, public benefits, education for their children, or often-contingent or under-the-table jobs. The cries of immigrant communities about informal and formal threats from immigration enforcement—and harassment and exploitation beyond the formal legal system—are rarely treated as civil access-to-justice problems.
All of us who work with immigrants are forced to turn down most very needy potential immigration clients, despite knowing that there is nowhere else for them to go. To fill in the gaps, many hold meetings, conduct know-your-rights or organizing sessions, or try to write about complex immigration law issues in ways that people can understand—all of which make us feel better because we think it might do some good or narrow the breach in our unkept promise of fairness, due process of law, or the dignity of human possibility.
All of us who do this work also meet people every day who have been refugees, are seeking asylum, or have otherwise encountered the immigration system—and who, given the chance and a little training, could do at least as well as immigration and human rights attorneys. In my more honest moments, I admit that they likely would do my job much better than I can. They might find ways to do that work differently, and my generation of immigration advocates must admit that, however much we tried to change the immigration system for the better, we failed. We were not prepared nor fit for the challenges of the Trump and Biden administrations. And even if we had, there will never be enough lawyers to satisfy immigrant communities’ needs, even if every lawyer had the knowledge, attitude, and commitment to do so—and fat chance of that.