Child Abuse Registry Disproportionately Harms Black Workers and Families

Today, the Sheller Center, along with Penn Law School, released a report tracing the racial harms of the Registry. The report, titled Pathways to Poverty: How the ChildLine and Abuse Registry Disproportionately Harms Black Workers and Families, summarizes a year-long investigation by students finding that Black Pennsylvanians are more likely to be reported for child abuse, be placed on the Registry, and lose a job as a result. Further information can be found in our press release and the subsequent coverage with WITF, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Advocacy victory: new PA Rule excludes evidence of immigration status from most court proceedings

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted Rule 413, a brand-new rule that presumptively excludes evidence of immigration status from court proceedings. Effective October 1, 2021, the new Rule allows a court to hear such evidence only in exceptional circumstances, and only after following stringent procedures to ensure that, when immigration status is not relevant to the case, it is not considered.

The Court adopted Rule 413 in response to advocacy by multiple groups. The Sheller Center led a statewide coalition of law professors that penned letters in 2019 and 2020 arguing for the need for a stand-alone rule, a presumption of inadmissibility, and a clear process for applying to the court for an exception. They argued that some immigrants will refrain from participating in court cases – whether as plaintiffs, defendants, or witnesses — if they fear that their immigration status may be revealed. When this happens, courts cannot adjudicate cases fairly and the rights of immigrants and other parties are inadequately protected.

Because access to the courts is foundational under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the Remedies Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the new Rule is a significant step forward for justice in Pennsylvania. 

Students create tenants’ guide for unsafe or inadequate housing

A Tenant’s Guide to Suing Your Landlord: Holding Landlords Accountable for Unsafe Housing Conditions is a step-by-step pro se guide on how tenants can proactively file cases against their landlords for substandard conditions. Many tenants live in unsafe or inadequate homes. This is no accident. Landlords profit by neglecting housing while still collecting full rent from tenants. More than 300 properties in Philadelphia have been cited as unfit for human habitation every year. Tenants rarely sue their landlords, but landlords annually file 24,000 eviction cases in Philadelphia alone.

The guide is an interactive tool with fillable forms, checklists, and worksheets. It walks tenants through the process of identifying their housing issues, providing notice to their landlords, collecting evidence, and preparing for court interviews and hearings. By engaging in the bite-size steps laid out in the guide, tenants will develop their personal statement and evidence (including damages calculation) needed to make a strong claim. Ultimately, the fillable forms in the guide can be submitted to the Court as evidence of the tenant’s case, reducing the barriers and confusion that a tenant may otherwise face in filing a pro se claim.

Lina Ruth Duiker (’22), Ashley Hyman (’22), and Maria Thomson (’22) developed the guide as part of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. The guide was created on behalf of the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), which partners with the community to advocate for a legal system that values housing as a human right. Tenants can bring the guide to TURN or another housing advocate for additional support and individualized advice if needed. By empowering tenant groups and increasing their access to justice, the guide seeks to shift the narrative away from identifying tenant poverty as the primary cause of substandard housing to recognizing the primary role of landlord neglect.

Berks County residents sue over secret plans for the Berks Family Detention Center

The Sheller Center, on behalf of Make the Road Pennsylvania and residents of Berks County, has filed a lawsuit against the Berks County Commissioners for deliberately keeping secret its plans surrounding the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC). BCRC is one of three family detention facilities in the US that has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants seeking asylum. It has long attracted local, statewide, and national attention, particularly given the impact of detention on children.

On February 25, 2021, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 on a resolution concerning the future of the facility. While the vote was public, the language of the resolution was so cryptic that it was unclear what the vote was really about. The federal government has stated that it is working with Berks County to convert the BCRC into an adult facility. The resolution referred to executing a letter of support to ICE for a white paper proposal for the facility. The Commissioners, however, neither engaged in public discussion nor provided information about the contents of these documents.

Plaintiffs are concerned about the continuing use of BCRC for immigration detention. Since the resolution passed, the public has sought to get further information. Berks County’s response has been to deny these requests for information and refuse to answer questions concerning BCRC.

The Sunshine Act requires that local governments operate openly as part of the democratic process. The complaint alleges that Berks County violated the Sunshine Act by having private deliberations about the resolution and failing to provide the public with a reasonable opportunity to comment prior to official action. It requests that the resolution be voided and the public be provided the opportunity to discuss Berks County’s plans for BCRC.

Temple law students, Lina Ruth Duiker (‘22) and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) helped to draft the complaint. A Facebook Live event sponsored by the Shut Down Berks Coalition featuring Lina can be found here. Co-counsel include Temple Law alumni Karen Hoffman (‘16) and Carol Anne Donohoe (‘10) with Al Otro Lado, Free Migration Project and Aldea. Further media coverage of the lawsuit can be found here and here.

Pennsylvania local governments are heavily involved with federal immigration enforcement

A report released today, Interlocking Systems: How Pennsylvania Counties and Local Police Are Assisting ICE to Deport Immigrants, reveals the extent of collaboration between local governments and ICE in the era of the Trump administration. Many local governments in Pennsylvania have made the choice to actively engage and support federal immigration enforcement. In contrast, other local governments across the country have opted not to use their local resources to assist ICE.

The report was prepared for Juntos by Amy Chin-Arroyo (‘20), Solena Laigle (‘20), and Prof. Jennifer Lee with the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic.

Pennsylvania counties, for example, are consistently collaborating with ICE pursuant to written policies or informal practices. County jails and probation departments regularly share information about immigrants and help ICE to locate and arrest immigrants. Local police collaboration with ICE appears to be less systematic and mostly ad hoc, with individual officers choosing to become involved in federal immigration enforcement.

Further, the report provides information about the eight federal contracts in Pennsylvania to detain immigrants in county jails for civil immigration violations. It details the significant human costs of jailing such immigrants while counties are profiting off the growing numbers of immigrants in civil detention.

Most recently, some cities and towns have canceled their lucrative federal contracts to detain immigrants in county jails or prisons. Local governments are reconsidering how to best use their resources to serve their local communities rather than the federal ICE enforcement machinery.

Some of the key findings from the report are outlined below:

  • County jails systematically share information with ICE on a weekly, if not daily basis.
  • County probation officers work with ICE to entice immigrants to come in for appointments so they may be arrested by ICE.
  • Pennsylvania counties receive millions of dollars for jailing ICE detainees, who are being held for civil immigration violations.
  • In 2017 and 2018, the ICE detainee population in Pennsylvania increased.
  • Inspection reports of these county jails have revealed that ICE detainees lack access to medical care.
  • ICE has actively courted police departments in Pennsylvania to engage in federal immigration enforcement.
  • The lack of formal written policies in police departments about interactions with ICE has created an opening for individual police officers to act based on their own personal inclinations.

All documents obtained from counties and police departments through the Right to Know Law are available here.


Restrict inquiry into immigration status in unrelated cases, law professors urge

If you’re in court for a landlord-tenant case, or an auto accident or domestic violence hearing, should the other side be allowed to ask about your immigration status? Common sense suggests that the answer is no. Unless the case is actually about your immigration status, it’s just not relevant – and it could be prejudicial.

In fact, the prospect of being asked about immigration in an unrelated matter can easily frighten immigrants from seeking justice in court, even when they have valid claims or defenses – as both the Sheller Center and PA’s Interbranch Commission have reported.

Pennsylvania’s rules of evidence, however, haven’t addressed the problem until recently, when the PA Supreme Court Rules Committee proposed a new “comment” to the rules. The comment would say that a person’s immigration status is generally irrelevant and inadmissible.

In response, law professors from Drexel, Penn, Penn State, Pitt, Temple (including the Sheller Center), Villanova, and Widener submitted a letter strongly supporting the proposal – while also arguing that it does not go far enough.  Instead of addressing the issue through a non-binding comment, the letter states, the Committee should develop an actual rule – such as exists in California and Washington – that would provide clear, non-discretionary guidance to judges, lawyers, and parties.

Creating school resolutions in support of immigrants

Since the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic created its welcoming schools toolkit with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition in 2017, a number of school districts around Pennsylvania have addressed the issue of immigrant students within their schools. Both the Reading and Haverford School Districts have created welcoming school policies. Such policies include not only a pronouncement that all students have the right to access public education but also that any requests for entry by ICE will have to be reviewed by the Superintendent, including whether ICE possesses a valid judicial warrant.

Protecting domestic workers

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic has been working with the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance (PDWA) to provide legal support to their organizing campaign. Domestic workers – nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers – are critical to the economy. Yet they work in a largely hidden economy behind closed doors. When subject to demanding, abusive, and exploitative conditions, they often have little power to assert their rights. To make matters worse, the laws governing the pay and conditions of workers often exempt domestic workers from basic protections. These legal exemptions reflect the history of domestic work, which includes the legacy of slavery and the relegation of household labor as “women’s work.” This fact sheet, created by Lily Austin (’20) and Carla Cortavarria (’19), summarizes how Philadelphia could enact a domestic worker bill of rights. Philadelphia’s City Council is now actively considering such a bill.

Sheller Center students help craft City resolution recognizing undocumented workers

Last week, Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution that recognizes all workers, regardless of immigration status. Sponsored by Councilwoman Helen Gym, the resolution continues the City’s tradition of welcoming immigrants, acknowledging the contributions of undocumented workers to Philadelphia’s local economy despite their exclusion from the lawful workforce under federal immigration laws. It also notes the increased risk of abuse and discrimination against undocumented workers. The resolution cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes the fundamental human right to earn a living without unjust exclusion and fair and safe workplace conditions.

The resolution is a major victory for the local organizing efforts of Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights (PAUWR). Just a couple of years ago, PAUWR was hatched as an idea from the kitchen of Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez, to fight for the rights of undocumented workers. PAUWR grew in strength and numbers by hosting a number of sold-out community dinners throughout Philadelphia. It will continue to do so by partnering with immigrant chefs and taking its local dinner series nationwide.

The resolution was drafted with help from Rebecca Daily (2L) and Ashley Rotchford (2L), law students at the Sheller Center for Social Justice, who worked with PAUWR as members of Temple Law School’s National Lawyers Guild (NLG). “This resolution is yet another example of how local jurisdictions can be inclusive of immigrants, despite the current federal climate that is hostile to both immigrants’ and workers’ rights,” says Rotchford.

For a news article on the resolution, click here.

New “language access” plan for Pennsylvania courts

A 2015 report by the Sheller Center was part of the advocacy that led to this week’s announcement, by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, of a statewide “language access” plan for Pennsylvania courts.

The Center’s 2015 report, which focused on the state’s Magisterial District Justice courts, found that people with limited English proficiency (LEP) were sometimes expected to proceed without interpretation services, or with “help” from friends or family. The Center initiated its study after the ACLU filed two complaints with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, highlighting the lack of access to interpreters by two litigants in the Pennsylvania courts. In response to the efforts of a coalition of advocates for LEP individuals, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts finally developed a plan that represents a big step forward for Pennsylvania.

The biggest challenge ahead will be implementation and monitoring of the plan in the state’s 60 judicial districts.  Sheller Center students are embarking on a follow-up project to the 2015 study to assess whether the language access needs of LEP individuals are, in fact, being met. “Our observations have shown the progress that courts have made towards providing language access services, but we have also identified many areas for growth,” said Lisa Burns, a 2L working on the project as part of the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic.

Click here for a WHYY report summarizing the Supreme Court announcement.