What a year 2020 turned out to be. A year ago, none of us would have ever believed the trials and tribulations that would infect all last year and continue to disrupt business as usual into this year. Like many organizations committed to social justice, Covid-19 has caused significant challenges in pursuing our mission to provide quality legal representation for low-income individuals and families facing immigration removal proceedings. The pandemic has impacted the Clinic’s practice in many ways – from the courts closing last March, to the way we now meet and interact with clients.
Removal proceedings have always been a challenge in the way they are conducted. With limited rights and even fewer ways to secure representation in the civil immigration court, noncitizens have always suffered. Covid made those challenges even more treacherous. For the most part, all hearing for those who were not in the custody of ICE came to a standstill. So, while those not in custody could not get their day in court at all, those in custody were rushed into hearings with little to no time to prepare. Bond hearings continued to be available but with bonds being set at historical highs, these matters often left individuals and families stranded and stuck-being ground up by the broken wheel of justice.
In 2017, when the Trump administration took office, immigration courts had a backlog of cases which numbered 542,411; in the four years since that number has ballooned to 1,290,766. Covid certainly did not help the situation. In the last year, the immigration court system, a division which is buried deep within the Department of Justice, has been politically weaponized to ensure that cases are handled in a manner which is inconsistent with due process, a prioritization of case completion over any meaningful review. The evidence of this shift can be seen in the way that cases were handled and the policies and procedures which were enacted. Many were deported without the benefit of a full and fair process.
With courts closed for most cases, and a rush to deport those in custody, the Clinic struggled in 2020, seeing a noticeable decrease in new cases and a halt to all but 11 of the ongoing 163 cases. These numbers left The Clinic in dire straits for most of the year. The Clinic survived in much the same way many did in 2020-with a little help from the government and a lot of help from our friends. Having qualified for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“Cares Act”), The Clinic was able to secure a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program so that the work could continue. But, it was ultimately the generosity of so many-the small, dedicated, consistent donations which came in- that really helped ensure that The Clinic would be able to survive into 2021.
Indeed, despite these difficulties we remain committed to our mission and have used some creativity to restructure the work being done so that clients, families, and communities can continue to rely on the resources of The Clinic well into the future. This work included taking on various appeals and motions to reopen- work of which under normal circumstances we would not have had the capacity for, but which allowed clients greater services while allowing The Clinic to remain viable. It was the silver lining which was hidden amidst the darkest of days and we did it together!
There is still much work to be done and with Covid still not under control, the days ahead remain uncertain. Yet, what we know for sure is that the resilience of The Clinic has always been unwavering because of supporters like you. Be a part of the journey. Stay a part of The Clinic family. And help create a world in which no one has to fight alone in immigration court just to stay with their families.