State's legal luminaries raising money for immigration lawyers

Members of Connecticut's legal elite have joined together to raise funds for low-income immigrant children and families.

Robert L. Holzberg, a retired Superior Court judge and current partner at the Pullman & Comley law firm, and Chase T. Rogers, retired chief justice of the state Supreme Court who is now a partner at Day Pitney, are serving as co-chairs of the Connecticut Lawyers for Immigration Justice campaign. 

They said that 100 percent of every dollar raised by the campaign will be shared by Connecticut's three legal aid organizations.

"We're trying to appeal to lawyers and law firms to give as much as they can consistent with their needs and their interest in this project," Holzberg said by phone Thursday. "We think this is a project that will resonate amongst the bar because it's based on a simple proposition: All people within our borders are entitled to due process and to competent counsel."

The campaign already had received about $40,000 in pledges from numerous law firms and lawyers before it was announced publicly, and is supported by current and past presidents of the Connecticut Bar Association, 11 other bar associations representing regions and ethnicities or heritages, and the deans of the laws schools at the University of Connecticut, Quinnipiac University, Yale University and Western New England Law School.

"We are deeply grateful for the support of so many members of the Connecticut bar," Rogers said. "Everyone who seeks asylum in this country should have their status adjudicated with due process protections, including the assistance of counsel."

Unlike those who are facing criminal charges, people involved in civil law cases, including immigration matters, do not have a right to legal representation. In Connecticut, nonprofit legal aid organizations Connecticut Legal Services, Greater Hartford Legal Aid and New Haven Legal Assistance Association rely on private funding and so-called "IOLTA" funds. IOLTA funds are interest-accruing accounts in which lawyers hold client money, and the interest then can be put toward representation for those who can't afford lawyers.

Holzberg, who started his career as a legal aid lawyer and is a member of Connecticut Legal Service's board of directors, said he was feeling agitated as he followed the story of two children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico boarder and brought to Connecticut. Holzberg said he was proud that Connecticut has attorneys dedicated to trying to help immigrants and children with legal needs.

The 14-year-old girl from El Salvador and a 9-year-old boy from Honduras lived in a Noank group home while legal aid attorneys brought a lawsuit in federal court. The children were reunited with their parents, who had been paroled from immigrant detention centers, in mid-July after U.S. District Court Judge Victor A. Bolden ruled that the separation was a violation of the children's constitutional rights.

"I decided to do something practical about it," Holzberg said. He reached out to Rogers, and the two decided it would be a nonpolitical, nonpartisan, ecumenical effort to raise money and went to work on the infrastructure of the campaign. Connecticut Legal Services will administer the funds, which will be shared with the New Haven and Hartford organizations, and all three recipients will have the ability to audit the funds.

Contributions will be used for payment of expert fees, purchase of new technology to support communication with detained clients, increased staffing and other urgent needs.

Unlike New York and 11 other states that provide funding for legal representation of detained immigrants, Connecticut does not pay the legal fees, and the privately funded legal aid services can't come close to meeting the needs of growing numbers of people struggling with immigration issues, according to Deborah Witkin, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services.

Legal services attorneys work with immigrant clients seeking asylum because they are in fear of persecution due to gang violence or political beliefs, battered women, religious minorities whose views are not accepted, people who face gender acceptance issues and juveniles.

The number of immigration cases opened at the three legal services agencies, which between them cover the entire state, jumped from 162 in 2016 to 419 in 2017. The number of cases for 2018 already has reached 397, according to Witkin. Since 2001, the agencies have opened 3,245 cases involving immigrants.

"Every day, legal services lawyers help immigrant crime victims seeking protection under the Violence Against Women Act," said Jamey Bell, executive director of Greater Hartford Legal Aid. "We help immigrant children who have been abandoned obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status. I'm so proud of that important work. But we don't have the capacity to meet the demand. This campaign will make a critically important difference."

Alexis Smith, executive director of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, said, "We look forward to the time when Connecticut joins New York and other jurisdictions in providing direct state support for immigrants facing deportation. Until then, we are grateful for the strong support of the bar — and of other friends of justice across the state."

For more information or to make a donation, visit the campaign website, ctjustice.org.

k.florin@theday.com

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments