(This article is written for the Washington State Bar Association, Young Lawyers Division newsletter- De Novo, to be published in their October 2009 issue)
As a relatively new immigration attorney, my practice relies heavily on the assistance I receive from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). AILA is a national association of over 11,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law. It was founded in 1946 and its mission is to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members.
AILA’s Washington Chapter (AILA-WA) has about 300 members. The membership is very friendly, welcoming and supportive of each other. Once a month, the chapter holds a free CLE session on various topics covering a variety of beginning and advanced topics. The chapter also holds an annual two day intensive Northwest conference with beginning and advanced tracks. The national organization holds an annual four day conference usually in June or July.
For the benefit of those outside immigration practice, immigration law is an intellectually stimulating, constantly evolving, and highly rewarding area of law in which you can have a diverse practice. You can focus solely on litigation matters and attend immigration court every day in removal (deportation) matters. Alternatively, you can focus on a transactional practice in family-immigration or business-immigration law. Clients can range from multi-national corporations seeking the world’s top talent to destitute battered-women or individual refugees fleeing devastating or other life-endangering conditions in their home-country. Many practitioners enter the field because they truly want to help people, and for many of our clients, our service can mean the difference between life and death. For business clients our work often impacts individual careers, product development and/or future hiring of US workers.
It is perhaps not as well known how active AILA-WA is in our community. AILA, as an organization, strongly encourages its members to participate in pro bono work. Its Pro Bono committee supports the work of other community organizations such as the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, the King County Bar Association’s Neighborhood Immigration Clinics, Volunteers Advocates for Immigrant Justice, SGB-Latino/a Bar Association Immigration Clinics and other programs. AILA is increasingly being asked to provide amicus briefs on issues concerning the treatment of immigrants in criminal and state court actions.
AILA WA began the first annual “Citizenship Day” program four years ago. Since then, AILA national has adopted this project nationwide held annually in April. AILA members, law students and members of the community volunteer at several sites throughout the state where there is less access to attorneys to provide one on one legal advice to potential applicants for naturalization. Earlier this year, the Washington program was expanded to 12 sites over three days after AILA developed a partnership with One America, formerly Hate Free Zone. One America was/is a recipient of a state grant to promote citizenship and new citizen integration in the state. Pro bono attorneys, paralegals, legal assistants, interpreters and lay-volunteers, all come together to assist people with completing forms, and advising on complicated legal issues. Training is provided for attorneys and others to ensure effective and accurate advice and assistance is given to clients. One America handles a lot of the logistics, media and outreach aspects of the program. Citizenship Days have been particularly successful as the costs of obtaining citizenship in the United States are not insignificant. Many applicants have been eligible for citizenship for over 20 years and did not have access to adequate information, legal counsel or sufficient funds to file. According to Bonnie Stern Wasser, the AILA WA Vice Chair and former Citizenship Day Committee Chair, “Citizenship Days are very rewarding to our volunteers. Over 85 AILA members made a big difference in the lives of immigrants. We were even able to determine that some of our clients already were citizens and did not know it. 750 clients came to our sites from far away and were so very grateful for the service we provided.” Three new citizenship days at 12 sites are planned around the state for October 24, 2009, February 6 and April 17, 2010.
Lisa Seifert, Chapter Chair for AILA-WA states, “I am really proud of our chapter members for donating their time and energy to citizenship day. Most people volunteered for more than one day. I hope this next year that we have even more of our members as well as other lawyers participating.”
In addition to Citizenship Day, AILA-WA assists indigent detainees held at the Tacoma Detention Center on a regular basis. Many of you may be or should be aware of the recent immigration raids in Washington. Sadly, countless detained people are unable to afford attorneys to assist them. More than 80% of detained immigrants lack counsel. Studies also show that asylum seekers who have access to counsel are more likely to win their cases than those who do not.
In collaboration with the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project (NWIRP) and Volunteer Advocates for Immigrant Justice, AILA-WA is able to reach out to those who are desperately in need of expert legal advice. The outreach is not just to detainees, but to asylees and refugees, battered-women, victims of crime and trafficking and much more. Again, here is an opportunity for non-immigration lawyers to get involved too. NWIRP and VAIJ offer free CLE programs if you take on a pro-bono matter. You are given supervision by an AILA immigration attorney who will hold your hand through the process. The experience promises great reward and satisfaction by helping someone vulnerable and less fortunate, a potentially temporary situation if you help intervene on that person’s behalf. Additional programs in Washington where non-immigration lawyers can volunteer and obtain experience touching on a variety of immigration issues are Columbia Legal Services and the ACLU. Law students can gain practical experience through the immigration law clinics at University of Washington School of Law and Seattle University’s Law School.
All in all, AILA-Washington is an organization that is dedicated to helping its members and the community at large. Many AILA members will agree that their practices would not flourish or even exist without the help and support of AILA. Our community is better served and protected due to the efforts AILA and its members provide on a daily basis. In addition to CLEs and pro bono opportunities, other benefits of AILA membership include an active list serve where members help each other solve problems, New Members Division that hosts government agency tours and social events, several substantive law and agency liaison committees with which to become involved, a mentor program, advocacy and Congressional liaison training and ability to attend an annual Congressional lobby day and local visits with state and federal legislators. AILA members regularly participate in legislative drafting and analysis and regulatory review.
Given the current economic climate of our country, and the Obama administration’s interest in immigration reform at the end of the year or early next year, AILA-WA is reaching out to the bar as a whole to get involved and make a difference. To participate in Citizenship Day, please visit http://www.wanewamericans.org. To find out more about AILA, please visit www.aila.org or www.ailawa.org. Alternatively, you can contact the Washington AILA Membership Chair, Cynthia Irvine at firstname.lastname@example.org. If your organization would like to join forces with AILA-WA, please contact AILA WA Chair, Lisa Seifert at email@example.com.
- Tahmina Watson is a solo-immigration practitioner in downtown Seattle. She is a member of AILA-Washington and is the current President-Elect of King County Washington Women Lawyers. Tahmina can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on her mobile at 206-856-3808.