Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) Pro Bono Project

The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) Pro Bono Project works to increase the level of pro bono representation to immigrants who are detained and without representation before the BIA. Since the Project's implementation in January 2001, the Project has matched more than 50 pro bono representatives with INS detainees who would otherwise appear pro se before the BIA. The BIA has issued four decisions on cases handled under the Project. In three of the four decisions the BIA sustained the detainee's appeal, underscoring the difference that representation can make in the outcome of an appeal before the BIA. The Project desperately needs volunteers to represent detainees before the BIA by writing briefs.

Information about EOIR's overall pro bono efforts is available from
Pro Bono Coordinator Steven Lang
(703) 305-0470

Testimony of BIA Project Participant Ilana Greenstein, Kaplan, O'Sullivan & Friedman

I heard about the BIA pro bono project at a National Lawyers' Guild conference last fall, put my name on a list of people who agreed to be contacted with case summaries, and promptly forgot about it. Several months later, the emails started coming, with summaries of claims by pro se applicants whose cases were at the BIA. Every week there was a new batch of summaries, and every week I neglected to take one. Finally, I picked one - partially because it involved a country which I knew, partially because it involved a legal issue about which I knew nothing.

Signing up was like stepping onto a moving sidewalk. Molly McKenna, the coordinator, took care of all of the initial logistics (contacting my client, getting the transcript, resetting the briefing schedule, etc.), with a minimal and well-supervised amount of effort on my part. Within a matter of weeks, it was all arranged. I cannot say enough about the pro bono project. It is extraordinarily well-organized; the coordinator is endlessly helpful; the whole process runs smoothly and predictably (how often does that happen in immigration practice?).

My client was detained in Hartford, Connecticut, several hundred miles away from me. I read his testimony in his transcript, and talked to him once or twice on the phone, but to a large degree he remained somewhat unreal to me. I sent off the brief, figured that it would be at least nine months before the Board made a decision, and his case took its place in the back of my mind. Three weeks later, the Board granted my client asylum, the INS released him, and he was on a bus to Boston to meet me.

I have to say that seeing him was one of the most gratifying moments of my life. Immigration cases are always poignant, and there is always something of an urgency to them - particularly to asylum cases. But I have never had a case which shifted so dramatically and so rapidly, and which made me think that I really had something to do with changing the course of someone's life forever. To watch my client go from what he considered to be the brink of death to freedom was quite something. I'm not quite sure of how to describe it, but I'm getting chills just thinking about it.