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Lessons Learned: Our Immigrant Justice Project Reflects on Remote Legal Services Best Practices during the Pandemic

by the Immigrant Justice Project March 24, 2021

After one year into a dramatic shift towards remote work, the City Bar Justice Center’s Immigrant Justice Project (“IJP”) has embraced a remote model of legal services delivery. Initially, the shift presented many ethical and logistical considerations, including optimizing communication with clients, maintaining confidentiality, and building trust remotely. The majority of our clients are asylum seekers who have experienced persecution and survivors of violent crimes here in the U.S., including labor and sex trafficking. As such, IJP’s primary consideration throughout has been to provide trauma-informed lawyering as we adapt to new methods of attorney-client consultations.

IJP’s clients are among those hit hardest by the pandemic – immigrants typically living in under-resourced communities, many of whom are struggling with job loss, food insecurity, housing instability, and lack of access to health care. Furthermore, they have been almost completely shut out of government stimulus programs. To help immigrant community members navigate these challenges and receive the care and resources they need, our staff created a COVID-19 Immigrant Resource Guide in English and Spanish. Committed to providing guidance to pro bono attorneys for remote legal representation, our team also created a Pro Bono Guide for Remote Representation, which tackles ethical and logistical considerations, as well as remote representation best practices. IJP Director Jennifer Kim and Fragomen Fellow Cecilia Lopez Santiesteban introduced the guide during a legal training for Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP attorneys on February 9, 2021. The training provided an overview of asylum law, COVID-related practice updates for the asylum office and immigration court, as well as remote representation practice pointers.

Among the topics covered in the guide is how remote legal services delivery requires determining which technology and communication platforms are most accessible to our clients. Attorneys must consider whether clients have access to reliable Wi-Fi, internet-ready devices such as computers, smartphones, scanners, and printers, or if there are barriers preventing them from using new platforms, like Zoom, to communicate. Even after this initial determination, a client’s ongoing access may be interrupted due to financial hardship or other challenges. All too often, we temporarily lose contact with clients due to COVID-related illnesses or because phone or internet accounts have been suspended because clients lack necessary funds. Continuity of contact requires honest conversations about resources, clients’ preferred method of communication, preferred application or platform to connect (WeChat, KakaoTalk, etc.), backup modes of communication, and in some cases, an emergency contact designation in the event the client cannot be reached. This is especially important given that attorneys must continue to meet filing deadlines during the pandemic.

Building trust and maintaining client confidentiality also present challenges in a remote work environment. While video conferencing helps foster more personal conversations, it is not a technology available to all of our clients. Telephone calls serve as an alternative interviewing platform. One drawback to phone calls is that we cannot see when a client is struggling, emotionally or physically, so we must communicate these challenges in advance and emphasize to clients the importance of letting us know when they need to take a break. We need to verbally check in with them throughout the interview and remember the importance of expressing empathy and making space for difficult conversations, all with the goal of promoting a trusting relationship with our clients.

Regardless of the method used to communicate, we ask clients at the outset of every conversation whether they are in a place where they can speak confidentially. Since many live in small apartments and share space with other individuals or family members, it’s helpful to know who else is in the room. It is important to be transparent with our clients as to why we are using a specific platform to communicate to ensure both privilege and privacy.

In addition to publishing guidance, IJP’s experience working remotely also informs our legal clinics. Our virtual legal clinic model relies on volunteer attorneys to provide limited-scope remote services through screenings, evidence review, and application assistance. Our team provides mentorship and training for pro bono volunteers through Zoom. In the past year, IJP has successfully coordinated multiple remote screenings, as well as virtual Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and naturalization clinics. Most recently, in January 2021, attorneys from BNY Mellon and Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, LLP assisted citizen-eligible applicants to complete naturalization and fee waiver forms, which IJP staff then finalized and mailed out.

We have an upcoming DACA legal clinic in March with O’Melveny & Myers and the legal department of Fannie Mae. We have scheduled two separate sessions for each DACA-eligible applicant because collecting evidence during a pandemic has proven to be a labor intensive endeavor. This structure provides our team and volunteers with the time necessary to carefully review and complete each individual’s application.

Our remote legal services delivery will continue to evolve and inform our work in the months ahead.  Even after we return to the office and resume in-person legal representation, we will undoubtedly integrate many of these remote best practices and technological innovations into our practice in order to expand access to justice for immigrants.

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