Could Immigration Reform Draw Greater Attention to the Legal Needs of Low-Income Immigrants?

Kirk Semple, writing for the New York Times’ City Room blog, reports that a federal appellate judge in New York is proposing an “immigrant justice corps” program that would recruit and train young lawyers to assist illegal immigrants navigate the pathway to legal residency status and citizenship—under the assumption that the immigration reform legislation anticipated sometime this year will provide one. Most expect it will.

The judge, Robert A. Katzmann, envisions something that would look a lot like AmeriCorps VISTA and the Peace Corps. According to Semple, the program would recruit 50 young immigration lawyers every two months for two-year periods of service. Like the programs modeled on Teach for America I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, it would give graduating law students an opportunity for work in what is a tight job market right now for lawyers. Katzmann estimates that he would need $5 million to support the program for a year. Authorizing a few million dollars of federal money in the immigration reform bill itself to provide legal assistance to those trying to meet the requirements of the law should be a no-brainer, but in the current budget-cutting climate, that may not be possible.

As Semple notes, Judge Katzmann has been a longstanding critic of the quality of the legal representation provided to immigrants, and was the leader of a group in New York group that proposed a plan last year to create a network of legal service providers to represent low-income immigrants in the New York City region.

One of the biggest problems facing immigrants in any legal proceeding is lack of English proficiency. I’ve seen firsthand defendants brought before judges in criminal courtrooms, for example, who don’t read or speak English and have no experience navigating the U.S. legal system. Last year, I noted on this blog that the National Center on Access to Justice (NCAJ) at the Cardozza School of Law had concluded that many courts “have little or no way to communicate with the growing number of Americans who have only limited proficiency in English.” As a result, “innocent people have been sent to prison, children have been sent to foster care unnecessarily, and women have found it impossible to get court orders to protect them from domestic violence.” As I argued in that post, this is a problem not just for non-native English speakers but for native English speakers with low levels of literacy as well.

I agree with Judge Katzmann that the problem of inadequate legal representation for immigrants (especially low-income immigrants) will acquire even greater urgency once an immigration reform bill is passed, but the problem isn’t limited to immigration status issues. Perhaps his proposal will draw greater attention to the need to address language access and low literacy in our justice system generally.