The City Bar Takes on Immigration Reform – Carey R. Dunne

Carey Dunne

President’s Column, July 2013

In issuing hundreds of reports, letters and statements a year on everything from Antitrust to Zimbabwe, the New York City Bar Association’s natural posture is one of observation, analysis and commentary. But the City Bar also has a more active side. We’ll take to the courthouse steps to support fellow lawyers in Pakistan, or turn out en masse to provide legal services following a tragedy. We also engage in legislative advocacy on the city, state and national levels. Recently, the City Bar has actively helped shape immigration legislation before Congress, led by our Immigration and Nationality Law Committee chaired by Lenni B. Benson.

Soon after the so-called “Gang of Eight” Senators released a draft immigration reform bill, the Immigration and Nationality Law Committee set out key issues it wanted addressed, worked with Senate staff to advance those provisions, and responded quickly to amendments antithetical to reform. In its first report on the bill in April, the Committee praised the legislation’s steps to reduce detention and provide a right to counsel, while urging further modifications. Although the Senate bill would provide counsel in deportation hearings for children and those with mental disabilities, the Committee advocated for providing counsel to any indigent non-citizen facing deportation, especially detainees. This is consistent with American values of fairness and due process in high-stakes matters.  Moreover, counsel would also save tax dollars by preventing unnecessary court proceedings, reducing time in detention and reducing government support for disrupted families. When you consider that Congress, with bipartisan support, has granted a right to counsel to sex offenders and Al Qaeda suspects in detention hearings, and that 76 percent of Americans support a right to counsel for immigrants facing deportation, it’s hard to see why appointed counsel is still denied to non-citizen residents facing detention and deportation.

In May, the Immigration and Nationality Law Committee, along with the City Bar’s Sex and Law, LGBT Rights, and Civil Rights Committees, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to include Sen. Leahy’s amendments that would provide green cards for same-sex permanent partners. While the Senate bill ultimately did not include these amendments, the committees believed it essential to keep the issue in the public debate. The news that the same-sex Bulgarian husband of a Florida resident was granted a green card in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent DOMA ruling was a welcome sign that times are changing.

In June, as the Senate Judiciary Committee continued to debate immigration legislation, the City Bar’s Immigration Committee played defense, rapidly analyzing and opposing 15 attempts through amendments to torpedo detention and due process provisions. None of the amendments that the City Bar opposed passed, including three openly debated by the Judiciary Committee. Later in June, as the Senate began floor debate, the Immigration Committee reaffirmed its positions on several key amendments and opposed attempts to thwart them.

Also in June, with the help of the City Bar’s International Human Rights, African Affairs, and Immigration and Nationality Law Committees, I wrote to Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi urging that the proposed Immigration and Modernization Act be amended so that child soldiers—themselves often victims of atrocities— are no longer barred from gaining lawful status. That same month, the Immigration Committee issued a report opposing a House immigration bill, named the “SAFE Act” (H.R. 2278), which would increase mandatory and indefinite detention of immigrants and increase criminal penalties for illegal entry to the level of disproportionate punishment. Finally, in June, the City Bar’s Committees on Criminal Courts and Immigration urged the House Judiciary Committee not to include provisions in the SAFE Act that would limit local law enforcement agencies’ discretion to comply with federal immigration detainer requests, under New York City legislation Mayor Bloomberg signed in March. Those City Bar Committees, as well as the Civil Rights, Corrections and Community Reentry, and Domestic Violence Committees, provided key analysis supporting that legislation, led by Criminal Courts Committee member Alina Das’s January testimony to the City Council. 

I especially thank Immigration Committee chair Lenni Benson and subcommittee chairs Mark Noferi, Nicole Feit, and Claire Thomas, as well as Wilmer Hale LLP for their pro bono assistance to the City Bar. On June 27th, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” (S.744) passed the Senate on a 68-32 vote, earning our committees some well-deserved, if short, rest. As the focus moves to the House, where the future of the immigration bill is uncertain, the City Bar will continue to press for meaningful immigration reform that reflects the City Bar’s mission to promote due process, human rights and the fair and efficient administration of justice.