After 22 years on the federal bench, Shira Scheindlin said she wanted out of the judicial “straitjacket of not being able to speak out.” As the presidential campaign heated up, with immigration as the key issue for both candidates, the retired judge found her second act. “I knew immigrants were going to need the most help,” she told me.
At 71, Scheindlin is perhaps best known for her 2013 ruling that the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy constituted “indirect racial profiling.” But in the days after the election of Donald Trump she co-founded the American Immigrant Representation Project (AIRP). It aims to harness the power—and deep pockets—of the nation’s biggest law firms to assist undocumented immigrants facing deportation. With about $500,000 in donations so far, the group’s 150 volunteers have started representing detainees along the East Coast and will soon spread across the country.
AIRP works by recruiting lawyers from big law firms through their pro bono committees. Volunteers are assigned cases referred by overburdened legal services groups. And because corporate lawyers may lack experience in immigration law, they are trained and supervised by the Immigration Justice Campaign, a deportation defense initiative run by the American Immigration Council and American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“I know how important it is to have a lawyer. It makes all the difference,” Scheindlin told me from the 32nd-floor of the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, where she is now a senior attorney.
The cause is critical at a time when Trump has overseen a dramatic rise in arrests of undocumented immigrants. Unlike the Obama administration, where immigrants were usually targets for removal only if they had a criminal conviction or had recently crossed the border illegally, the Trump administration has abandoned these priorities and seems to be arresting undocumented individuals at random. And unlike criminal defendants, who are guaranteed lawyers at the taxpayers’ expense, undocumented immigrants facing deportation are not entitled to legal representation.
Nationwide, only about 37 percent of immigrants facing removal—and 14 percent of immigrants in detention—are able to secure representation, according to the American Immigration Council. This is due to barriers such as cost and the difficulty of obtaining an attorney once in detention. Immigrants with attorneys fare better at every stage of the court process: They’re four times more likely to be released from detention, 11 times more likely to seek legal relief, such as asylum, and twice as likely to be granted some sort of legal protection.
“We are not an anti-Trump effort,” Scheindlin explained from her office overlooking the Statue of Liberty. “It’s a pro-immigrant, right-to-counsel effort. Admittedly, we were energized by the election. Trump was saying he would get rid of all those murderers and rapists, which are his words for people who are undocumented. But of course, that isn’t true. Many of them are turnstile jumpers or marijuana possessors or driving on an expired license. These are all small things. Maybe they don’t even have a criminal record. But for them deportation is life-threatening.”