NIJC welcomes interested attorneys to handle cases on a pro bono basis. NIJC's Pro Bono Project provides free legal representation through volunteer attorneys for unaccompanied immigrant children, immigrant survivors of domestic abuse, low-income individuals seeking to apply for naturalization, and persons seeking asylum. NIJC screens all cases extensively to ensure that only those who are legally eligible for the immigration benefit sought and those with the fewest private resources enter NIJC’s program and are referred for pro bono representation to attorneys and firms who generously donate their time and expertise.
NIJC provides training to interested attorneys and pro bono coordinators and continues to provide technical assistance and case support as necessary throughout the life of a case. An attorney taking a case for the first time must attend one of NIJC's quarterly trainings. Attorneys who accept NIJC cases can be assured that they will have ample support and resources from which to draw to facilitate a successful outcome.
Pro Bono Expectations and Guidelines
Please note that NIJC expects pro bono attorneys to agree to stay with cases from commencement to completion. In asylum matters, this means through completion of the asylum interview or merits hearing, and if necessary and appropriate, to exhaust appeal remedies before the Board of Immigration Appeals. In VAWA, U visa, Trafficking and Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) matters, this means until the client receives adjudication of the initial petition and, in many cases, obtains lawful permanent resident status. When necessary and appropriate, representation also may include motions to reopen, administrative appeals or appeals before the Executive Office for Immigration Review. Download NIJC's pro bono attorney guidelines.
Types of Pro Bono Opportunities
Asylum is a form of immigration relief that may be granted to individuals who flee persecution in their home country and arrive in the United States to seek protection. To be granted asylum in the United States, a person must demonstrate that she meets the legal definition of a refugee created by the United Nations and adopted in U.S. law. This process entails proving that the individual is unable to return to his or her home country because of past persecution and/or a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion.
Affirmative asylum applications (where the applicant is not in removal proceedings) are straightforward and typically time-manageable. Most cases will require between 40 and 100 hours of casework to produce a comprehensive application that includes the detailed retelling of the client’s story and the relevant research both of country conditions and of case law. Lawyers with clients submitting affirmative applications will represent the client in an asylum interview before the Chicago Asylum Office.
Asylum seekers who have been referred from the asylum office to Immigration Court and applicants who are placed in removal proceedings prior to applying for asylum will seek asylum defensively before an immigration judge. Defensive asylum applicants need assistance with their Master Calendar Hearings – preliminary hearings similar to arraignment hearings in criminal cases or status conferences in civil cases – or their Merits Hearings – the actual trial date during which an immigration judge will take testimony, give the applicant an opportunity to provide evidence and allow for cross-examination by the government’s attorneys.
In defensive asylum cases, the attorney must work to prepare the client for trial, locate experts and other potential witnesses, and develop comprehensive legal arguments for presentation before an Immigration Judge. Defensive cases generally require a greater time commitment than affirmative applications and the process may take from a few months to a few years.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA):
On June 15, 2012, the Obama administration announced that certain young immigrants who were brought to this country as children and educated in the United States should not be deported, but instead granted a temporary status called “deferred action,” and work authorization. Approximately 75,000 youth in Illinois – who see themselves as Americans and have spent most of their lives in the United States – are eligible for deferred action.
NIJC hosts monthly pro bono legal clinics at host law firms to provide representation for these young men and women. During the clinic, pro bono attorneys attend a one-hour training and then meet with a client for two hours directly following the training. Generally, all client work is completed the day of the clinic, and attorneys finalize and file the applications within a week of the clinic. Most cases require between 10-15 hours of casework.
Protections for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children:
NIJC offers the following opportunities for pro bono attorneys interested in working with unaccompanied immigrant children:
- Conduct legal orientations, also known as “Know Your Rights” presentations
- Conduct individual legal interviews and screenings
- Represent children seeking asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status
The National Immigrant Justice Center provides legal services to detained unaccompanied immigrant children, many of whom arrive in this country with no one to protect them. Global social and political crises have also generated waves of immigrants (including unaccompanied children) from many countries including those in Africa, Central and Latin America, the Balkans, and Asia. Unaccompanied immigrant children who do not know the language, have no understanding of the legal system, and have been abandoned by their families are even more at risk of not having their rights protected if they do not have legal representation. Legal services are critical to the protection of their rights and well being.
Unaccompanied immigrant children’s cases are often time-sensitive and will need persistent advocacy to obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and/or asylum. Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status is a form of relief available to unmarried minors who have suffered abuse, neglect, or abandonment by their parents or legal guardians. SIJ cases involve obtaining a dependency order from a state juvenile court, filing an application for SIJ status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and then applying to adjust the client's status before the immigration court. Pro bono attorneys who take on a SIJ case generally spend between 80 - 100 hours of work on the case. Unaccompanied immigrant children’s asylum cases typically take the same amount of time as an adult asylum case.
It is important for attorneys handling these cases to be aware that detained minors are often transferred into foster care by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). When these transfers occur, it is possible the minors will be placed in foster care outside the Chicago area. These cases may be particularly challenging due to the age of the clients and because the legal basis for asylum in these cases is often novel and not well developed in existing case law.
Some discrete volunteer opportunities also are available to assist in Know Your Rights presentations, particularly for bilingual volunteers.
Protections for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Other Violent Crimes:
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) created a process through which immigrant survivors of domestic abuse may obtain immigration status in the United States independent of their abuser. To qualify, an immigrant survivor must be married to a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) or divorced within the past two years, must have suffered physical abuse or extreme cruelty at the hands of the abusive spouse, and must be a person of good moral character. The applicant must present evidence of a bona fide marriage to the U.S. citizen or LPR abuser and must show that she has resided with the abuser.
To prepare a self-petition under VAWA, the client will have to meet with the pro bono attorney on several occasions. Most cases will require approximately 30-40 hours of casework to produce a comprehensive application that includes the necessary attention to detail in the client’s story and the documents in support of the self-petition. VAWA cases do not require litigation.
U visas are another form of relief to survivors of domestic abuse. Pursuant to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (VTVPA), U.S. immigration law also offers protection to non-citizen victims of serious crime who have gathered the courage to come forward, report the crime, and assist in its investigation or prosecution. U-visa applicants must demonstrate that they have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse resulting from a wide-range of criminal activity, including domestic abuse and sexual assault. U-visa applicants must also present evidence that they possess information about the criminal activity, have been helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime, and that the crime occurred in or violated the laws of the United States.
To prepare a U-visa application, the client will have to meet with the pro bono attorney on three to four occasions. Most cases will require approximately 20-30 hours of casework to produce a comprehensive application and may require advocacy with law enforcement agencies in order to obtain certification that the victim assisted in the investigation or prosecution of the crime. Like VAWA petitions, U-visa cases do not require litigation. Both VAWA and U visa cases are generally less time and resource intensive than asylum cases.
After reading the information above, if you think you would be a good fit to provide pro bono representation in any of these types of cases, please contact NIJC's Pro Bono Coordinator to register for a training.