Skip to main content

Relieving the Tension: Lay Immigration Lawyering and the Management of Legal Violence


By Jamie Longazel 
John Jay College, City University of New York



Picture: Dominguez/Kut, R. (2018, June 30). Thousands gather at the steps of the Texas Capitol to rally against the recent immigration crackdown along the U.S./Mexico border. [Digital image]. Retrieved from http://www.kut.org/post/thousands-protest-trumps-zero-tolerance-immigration-policy-austin

News about the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy understandably sent us into collective shock. But it’s important to note that a lot of what happened was not all that new. This particular set of atrocities took place against a legal backdrop where the U.S. has routinely denied basic rights to many immigrants and refugees. Unlike in criminal cases, for example, immigrants are not guaranteed access to counsel. One recent study found that only 37% of immigrants had legal representation in deportation proceedings.

My article, “Relieving the Tension: Lay Immigration Lawyering and the Management of Legal Violence” examines the Recognition & Accreditation Program (R&A Program), which is intended to fill this void by increasing access to representation for indigent immigrants. It authorizes certain non-lawyers, or “Accredited Representatives” (ARs), to practice immigration law out of non-profit or faith-based organizations on the condition that they charge only “nominal fees.” Lay lawyers are studied far less often than licensed attorneys, yet lay lawyers are on the front lines of guiding immigrants through the legal system.

The trend in immigration law and policy is toward devolution: transferring essential governmental responsibilities to organizations and citizens. How does the program serve justice in an immigration regime that has been notoriously harsh?

Whereas much of the debate over this program has been about whether ARs will “win” as often as their professionally-trained counterparts, I came at the issue somewhat differently. Reason being, I noticed that it wasn’t only their lack of formal training that made ARs distinct. Most ARs are women (approximately 74%, compared to 57% of immigration attorneys and only 36% of lawyers generally); a disproportionate number appear to be immigrants themselves; and many of the ARs I interviewed told me they came to this work not with careerist ambitions but because they felt called to it by their values or their faith.

ARs described how their life experiences have led them to work in a way that places a high priority on their clients’ well-being. Sometimes they talked about providing their clients with holistic services – offering general advice, companionship, or simply hope – in contrast to cultural imagery of lawyers who track billable hours and see a case rather than a person. At other times, rather than challenging law’s characteristic rigidity, they embraced it. Aware of the high-costs associated with a legal error, many described being hyper-attentive to legal minutiae.

This program may also be providing a number of ancillary benefits to the state. When ARs provide emotional labor to clients confronting state violence, family separation, and the like, they aren’t so much altering what is to come but rather preparing their clients for it. When ARs fill out paperwork, correct errors, and help clients get their forms in order, they are also relieving the state of a huge bureaucratic burden. In short, even though their intent is undoubtedly altruistic, from the perspective of the state, ARs are doing work that prepares their clients to be “processed” by the immigration system at no cost to the government.

The R&A Program therefore represents far more than a potential “solution” to the problem of immigrant representation. Ideas differ about what counts as good lawyering; the R&A program serves as window into how immigration governance is carried out. It shows that beyond the day-to-day state violence of the current immigration regime in the United States, the burdens of managing such violence are being passed down to the very marginalized groups – women, immigrants, etc. – who have been historically excluded from the legal profession.

Popular posts from this blog

Europeanization or National Specificity? Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France, 2002–2012

By Abigail Saguy, UCLA

Sexual harassment represents a massive problem for working women worldwide. A recent social media campaign has brought increased awareness to this fact. In late 2017—after three-dozen women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, or rape—millions of women posted “Me Too” on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Taking inspiration from African American activist Tarana Burke—who, in 2007, started an offline “Me Too” campaign to let sex abuse survivors know that they were not alone—actress Alyssa Milano launched this online Me Too campaign to shift the focus from Weinstein to victims. She hoped this would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”[1] While some posted simply, “Me Too,” others provided wrenching detail about abuse they had sometimes never before shared publicly. In France, a similar social media campaign flourished, under the hashtag “balance ton porc,” loosely translated as “sq…

Comment: Making valid claims in social science research: A comment on Jenness and Calavita

By Tom Tyler, Yale Law School

I am writing to comment on several methodological issues raised by the article by Valerie Jenness and Kitty Calavita, entitled “It depends on the outcome”: Prisoners, grievances, and perceptions of justice”. I am pleased that the methodology blog for Law and Society Review has been created and provides a forum to discuss research design issues. I will address three aspects of the study: operationalization of the variables; statistical analysis; and inclusiveness of the literature review.

The Jenness/Calavita paper studies California prisons using data collected through interviews with prisoners. The paper says that it tests the perceptual procedural justice model, in particular there are frequent references to the Tyler model, in a prison setting. The study concludes that “prisoners privilege the actual outcome of disputes as their barometer of justice” showing “the dominance of substantive outcomes” (from the abstract)”.

I agree with Jenness and Cala…

Boiling in the Cells: Prisoners, Grievances, and Substantive Justice

By Valerie Jennessand Kitty Calavita University of California, Irvine Department of Criminology, Law and Society