Big Law firms such as Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher are embracing virtual clinics to expand their pro bono work to help undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S as children, known as “Dreamers,” renew their status during the coronavirus pandemic.
Like many others, young people who signed up for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA have been hard hit by loss of jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, which makes it more difficult for them to complete the renewal process required every two years.
Large law firms working with Immigrant Legal Defense, a legal services nonprofit, have stepped in remotely to help DACA recipients with the lengthy paperwork and in many cases, pay the $495 renewal fee, which was out of reach for many newly jobless.
The new national unemployment crisis along with a looming case at the U.S. Supreme Court that could affect the DACA’s fate, has added extra urgency to firms’ work and inspired them to navigate the challenges of socially distanced pro bono. The renewals could help protect DACA status holders from deportation for a period of time if the justices overturn the program.
Earlier this month, swelling layoffs and shelter-in-place orders prompted Oakland, Calif-based ILD to switch from physical clinics to a remote model for renewal assistance.
“We could no longer have in-person appointments, so we had to figure out a new way to handle renewals,” said Andrea Fitanides, pro bono counsel at Morgan Lewis, which works with the organization on DACA.
The clock is ticking as the Supreme Court prepares to rule — by June at the latest — on whether the Trump administration can shut down the DACA program which shields an estimated 700,000 recipients from deportation and allows them to work in the U.S.
On April 20, the Supreme Court permitted a group of DACA recipients to file a supplemental brief in the case, which was argued before the justices last November. They maintained that because nearly 30,000 recipients work as health care providers, terminating the program would cause essential workers to lose their work permits during the pandemic.
While the fate of the program lies in the balance, Big Law attorneys are partnering with ILD including Morgan Lewis and Gibson Dunn as well as Fenwick & West and Winston & Strawn.
Immigrant Legal Defense worked with law firm partners to map out how to assemble the 25-page renewal form so required information could be collected, signed, reviewed, approved, and transmitted to federal immigration authorities.
“It took a lot of steps to figure out how we could do it and also pay the filing fee,” said Kaitlin Kalna Darwal, ILD’s managing attorney. “The Covid crisis forced us to figure it out.”
Rather than new technology that might be out of reach for many clients, Darwal used highly accessible tools like phone, mail, and email.
“Not everyone has a scanner or printer or can take pictures of documents,” she said. “Completing a renewal requires mailing documents back and forth between clients and lawyers and getting signatures on three pages from clients and attorneys. It can be very time consuming.”
“And then it all has be reviewed by us since we are the immigration specialists before it can be packaged, copied and mailed to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,” she added.
Darwal created a PowerPoint presentation explaining the process, then sent a link to a training session over Zoom so pro bono lawyers could understand the steps and requirements of putting together a renewal application.
Clients have an initial consultation with an ILD attorney to screen out cases with unusual complications, and then consult with their assigned law firm lawyer by phone.
Since the virtual approach began on April 6, some 112 renewal applications have been filed or are in process, Darwal said. The legal services provider sought funding from participating law firms for the application fee, which is out of reach financially for people with uncertain employment.
One of them, Liliana, a student at Fresno State and a warehouse worker came to the country as a child just over 30 years ago. She said the legal assistance and fee payment was “a great help.”
“They lifted a whole other weight off my shoulders,” said Liliana, who asked not to be identified further so as not to jeopardize her immigration status. A Morgan Lewis lawyer is handling her renewal, one of 10 that the firm has processed since the remote clinic pilot started. Next month, the firm plans to provide DACA renewal services in another part of the country, Miami, with another legal services group.
This is Liliana’s third renewal, but this time, she was told initially that immigration officials were now requiring that she list the address of every place she had lived since arriving from Mexico in 1987.
“That was 25 addresses that I thought I would have to find,” she said. She later learned from the DACA renewal clinic that she had gotten incorrect information and providing all the addresses was not necessary.
Gibson Dunn has picked up the cases, and the fees, for 70 DACA renewal applicants in the past month, said Katherine Marquart, the firm’s pro bono counsel.
“There have been logistical challenges, absolutely, but no more or less than those that exist for us working on all our matters today,” Marquart said. She said 85 attorneys from every firm office have been involved in the effort. Partner Theodore Olson also argued in favor of the DACA program at the Supreme Court oral arguments last November.
“A possible silver lining,” said Marquart of the firm’s remote pro bono, “is that we all could learn to deliver legal services in a more efficient way.”