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Statutes of Liberty: What is it like to defend immigrants at a local nonprofit?

This sponsored column is by Law Office of James Montana PLLC. All questions about it should be directed to James Montana, Esq., Doran Shemin, Esq., Janice Chen, Esq., and Austen Soare, Esq., practicing attorneys at The Law Office of James Montana PLLC, an immigration-focused law firm located in Falls Church, Virginia. The legal information given here is general in nature. If you want legal advice, contact us for an appointment.

[This is the third installment in our new series here at Statutes of Liberty, in which we interview professionals in our field to provide our readers with varying perspectives on what it is like to work in the immigration system.]

Katie Fourmy never smiles in court, except when she wins. She smiles a lot in court.

Q: Who are you and where do you work?

A: My name is Katie Fourmy, and I work at Just Neighbors, a nonprofit that offers very low-cost legal services.

Q: Did you once work for James Montana as an intern?

A: What is the first rule of Fight Club?

Q: Touché. Next serious question: You work at an immigration nonprofit. You defend people and charge low fees. But ‘low’ is more than ‘free.’ Why don’t immigrants just go to the public defender?

A: I wish! Immigrants have a right to an immigration attorney in court, but that means that they have a right to hire one, not a right to have one if they can’t afford it. That means that they have to save up money and either hire someone from the private bar or a low-cost nonprofit provider like Just Neighbors.

Q: When you say low-cost, what do you mean? What does Just Neighbors charge?

A: We charge a one-time $100 fee.

Q: Say what?

A: Well, $100 for an individual, $200 for a family. That’s the fee for the whole case.

Q: [Sound of shattering glass, as your friendly local immigration lawyer contemplates financial dystopia.] How on earth does Just Neighbors stay afloat?

A: We are very fortunate to benefit from the generosity of faith communities, individuals, and local jurisdictions, which provide us with funding. We also receive support from foundations. We don’t have enough money, and indeed, we don’t have enough lawyers.

Q: How many lawyers are we talking about?

A: Ten lawyers, currently.

Q: What geographic range does Just Neighbors cover?

A: Maryland, D.C., Northern Virginia, and swaths of rural Virginia — that’s five attorneys covering Northern Virginia, including Prince William and Loudoun.

Q: Do you represent people in detention?

A: We do not. We refer them to CAIR Coalition. CAIR Coalition is the only nonprofit in the area that does detained immigrant defense. KIND and Ayuda will sometimes take cases for detained children.

Q: Children? That reminds me. Do children have the right to counsel in immigration court?

A: Nope, neither children nor adults have the right to appointed counsel.

Q: How is a child, in or out of an immigration detention center, supposed to research the law and present a case for asylum?

A: Beats me. But in all seriousness, this is a representative example of how our immigration system can be inhumane and illogical.

Q: What’s a normal caseload at Just Neighbors?

A: There’s no such thing. It depends on the complexity of the individual cases. A work permit can be pretty quick, but an asylum case can take weeks of work — 75 to 100 hours.

Q: What is the focus of your practice?

A: I focus mostly on representing unaccompanied minors.

Q: What’s that? Or, rather, who are they?

A: Those are children who arrive on the southern border, without their parents; they are detained, placed in shelters or foster care, and (eventually) released to an appropriate sponsor.

Q: And then what happens?

A: Ah, yes. Then We the People — the U.S. government — place them in removal proceedings and make them prove why they should not be deported.

Q: What defenses might these minors have?

A: Some of these kids qualify for asylum, but obtaining asylum is difficult under our laws. Many of them qualify for something called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which is available for children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents. Obtaining SIJS takes a long time, but, if successful, the child can eventually obtain a green card.

Q: Can a child who obtains a green card via SIJS bring their abusive parent here?

A: No. Indeed, neither parent — the abusive or neglectful parent, or, conversely, a loving and wonderful parent — can benefit from the child receiving SIJ status.

Q: What are family court proceedings like for SIJS cases?

A: These are typically uncontested proceedings. The child’s parent or guardian petitions the court for full custody, and asks that the court consider whether the child satisfies the relevant requirements for SIJ status, namely: (1) whether the child has been abandoned, abused or neglected; and (2) whether it is in the child’s best interest to be returned to the home county.

Q: Uncontested? How does that work? Let’s say I’m a parent.

A: Any parent has the right to receive notice of the proceedings, and then, once the parent has received notice, the parent has the right to contest the allegations, to defend their custody rights, and to preserve their ability to play a role in their child’s life. Virginia courts take this very seriously, and, indeed, Virginia courts treat parents who are living outside the United States just like U.S. citizen parents; everyone has the right to notice and to speak for themselves in court.

Q: Let’s talk about capacity. Does Just Neighbors have any trouble finding clients?

A: We’re at capacity. We turn away about 80% of the people who come to us.

Q: Do you work for rich people, too?

A: No, we have a strict income cap for our clients; they have to fall under 200% of the income set in federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that’s $60,000 per year.

Q: Most of our readers don’t work in legal aid. What’s it like?

A: We work with people at their most vulnerable. They’ve often fled violence in their home country, and they are sometimes living in unstable situations here. No day is like any other, but my takeaway from this work is that community is a very wonderful thing. I have seen my clients’ families come together to pay USCIS fees from precious few resources; I have seen my clients’ churches come together to support victims of crime. It’s inspiring work, but also exhausting work.

Q: Do most attorneys at Just Neighbors tend to be more experienced, or do most attorneys at Just Neighbors tend to be younger?

A: Just Neighbors is atypical. Most of the attorneys here have more than five years of experience, and many have more than ten. My impression is that many immigration nonprofits have much newer attorneys, and sometimes higher turnover. Burnout is a real problem in legal aid.

Q: What’s your secret?

A: Just Neighbors works hard to maximize the good it can do in a difficult system. Minimizing turnover preserves our ability to represent clients in the most complex cases. Additionally, cases take a very long time in our immigration system; a U Visa case, for example, could take fifteen years.

Q: Is Just Neighbors hiring?

A: Not immediately, no. But, we’re hoping to expand, which means looking for more funding to serve more clients, and, when we have that funding, we’ll pour it straight into expanding capacity. And if someone is interested in working at Just Neighbors, they should reach out and send a resume. We are always on the lookout for great talent.

Q: Imagine that I were a law student or recent law graduate who wanted to break into the field. What would you recommend to me?

A: I would recommend that you get an internship. Many nonprofits — as well as private attorneys — hire summer interns or offer in-service opportunities during the semester. Having a second language is, of course, helpful.

Q: Other than direct representation, what else does Just Neighbors do?

A: Just Neighbors does a lot of community engagement. We do presentations about the immigration system to church groups, social workers, schools, retirement communities, and anyone else who wants to hear about it. We do nonpartisan presentations that get the facts out…

Q: Just like me?

A: Better than you, buddy. That’s one thing that I really love about Just Neighbors. We work hard to get the word out. We explain how our immigration laws allow people to obtain permanent residency — through family, employment, or, in rare cases, through humanitarian forms of relief — and how, in many cases, relief is not possible.

Q: Does Just Neighbors do marriage-based immigration cases? Do you do naturalizations?

A: Sometimes, but rarely. We focus on humanitarian cases, and typically refer family-based cases and naturalization to other nonprofits and the private bar.

Q: Like where?

A: Well, right now, most of the local nonprofits are swamped and can’t accept family-based referrals, so we refer them to the private bar.

Q: Giving Tuesday is very soon. If someone wanted to give, on a Tuesday, or any other day, to Just Neighbors, is there a convenient way for them to do that?

A: Yes indeed. Here’s the link.

Low-Bono and Pro Bono Referrals

Here at The Law Office of James Montana, we are always happy to refer prospective clients who can’t afford our fees to local non-profit agencies. (Here is an article which provides a nationwide list, including agencies in both Virginia and Maryland.) Local non-profit agencies are (lamentably) extremely capacity-constrained. We need more low-cost providers of services in our profession. In another upcoming interview, we’ll be introducing a nonprofit administrator, and asking them detailed questions about that problem.

As always, we welcome your comments and will do our best to respond.

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