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. 

Helping a client get back his wages

  • By Colin O’Neil

At the end of my 1L year, I knew what a complaint was, had learned some civil procedure, and had some abstract ideas of the difficulties disadvantaged communities face. After participating in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, I’ve written an actual complaint, figured out how to apply civil procedure to a real case, and helped an actual client get the money he was entitled to from his former employer.

In our first meeting, my client—who knew little English and brought his son to translate—explained that he was an immigrant from Pakistan who had worked at a gas station in Philadelphia. For the seven months he worked there, his employer paid him well below minimum wage. Worse, he was never paid at all for his final few months of work. He didn’t want to sue his former boss, but didn’t know what else to do.

At the time, I didn’t really know what to do either. However, my partner and I worked through the possibilities and began drafting a complaint. Writing this complaint was the first thing I did in law school that would have a real-world impact on someone’s life, which was just as valuable, and scary, as it sounds.

After filing the complaint, we heard nothing from my client’s boss for months. When we finally sent him notice of our intent to file for default judgement, his attorney called us. We then began the settlement process. I went back and forth with opposing counsel, negotiating a settlement offer for my client. Months later, right before it seemed like negotiations were about to break down, my client decided to settle. Though it was less than he could have gotten if he had won at trial, he came away happy with this amount. I’ll never forget when his son called to thank me for helping his father.

Through the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, I was able to apply what I had previously learned in the classroom to represent a client through their whole case—from our first meeting in the Sheller Center all the way to settlement. Along the way, I gained the skills and confidence I’ll need to continue helping clients in the future.

 

Helping Philadelphia low-wage workers at a virtual clinic

  • By BK Katzmann (’22)

Despite COVID-19 impediments, we have been fortunate to stay engaged with the larger community through the networks built by the Sheller Center for Social Justice. My interest in low-wage workers got me connected to the Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW). CREW is comprised of twelve different community organizations advocating for Philadelphians across various industries. In recent years, CREW has achieved significant victories for low wage workers, including most recently pushing for extended paid sick leave related to the pandemic.

In December, CREW held their first Zoom legal clinic. I worked to organize  students to help with intake. The goal of the clinic was to both educate workers and ensure enforcement against employers who are violating the laws. Before the clinic, OnePA and Community Legal Services led trainings to teach us specifically about Philadelphia’s worker protection laws and how to work with potential clients coming from CREW’s member organizations. The clinic Zoom was set up such that organizers from CREW held Know-Your-Rights trainings in the main room, while the law students and other organizers met with workers individually in breakout rooms. Volunteer lawyers were available to field questions from the individual meetings and plan out next steps.

Although getting to apply the skills I am learning in law school was valuable on its own, the most impactful part of this volunteer opportunity was the ability to participate in a system where everyone had value. There was no sense that the attorneys knew more than anyone else. Instead, the community valued each individual’s skills, capacities, and needs. This sentiment was particularly apparent at the end of the clinic where all those remaining in the Zoom session—workers, organizers, lawyers, and law students—shared what we were taking away from the evening. Despite the diversity of voices and roles within the meeting, everyone offered some message of gratitude and solidarity. Participating first-hand in a setting where lawyers and clients work together in the pursuit of justice was truly powerful. I am grateful to the Sheller Center for Social Justice for this kind of learning opportunity, and I hope that many other students get the chance to work with our surrounding community.

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.

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.

Sheller Center Creates Model Policies Toolkit for Communities Fighting Against Federal Immigration Enforcement

February 25, 2021The Sheller Center, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), releases Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania: Toolkit of Model Policies for Advocates & Communities Seeking to End Local Collaboration with Federal Immigration Officials. This toolkit aims to support community-based, immigrant-led movements that are fighting to end local government collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

By systematically targeting immigrants for arrest, detention, and deportation, ICE creates fear within communities and perpetuates cycles of trauma and hardship. ICE relies heavily on local law enforcement and other government officials to assist with gathering information, stopping, apprehending, and detaining immigrants in Pennsylvania. 

Immigration enforcement, however, is a federal responsibility. Participation by local authorities is entirely voluntary and not required by law. Further, by assisting with enforcement of federal immigration law, localities expend their own resources and open themselves up to potential liability. For this reason, several counties and cities in Pennsylvania have enacted policies that explicitly restrict local government participation in such collaboration. 

Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania provides sample model policies. The toolkit is divided into four broad categories of interaction with ICE that localities can seek to address: (1) general assistance; (2) interactions with criminal systems; (3) information sharing; and (4) contractual agreements. Community-based organizations can use the toolkit to advocate for policies that remedy specific forms of local ICE collaboration happening within their own communities.

Beyond the model policies themselves, the toolkit provides additional resources about each policy, including talking points, statistics, and legal information that can help advocates in speaking with local government officials. It also details information about similar policies that have been enacted in localities across Pennsylvania, with the full versions available on our website.

Mana Aliabadi (‘22), Alexis Fennell (‘21), and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) developed the toolkit as part of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. For the official launch of the toolkit, PICC will host a public webinar on February 26, 2021, followed by in-depth workshops in both English and Spanish. For more information on these events, please visit PICC’s website. 

 

Students file tort claims for families separated at the border

By Elizabeth Castillo ‘22 & Emily Alvarez ‘21

The Trump administration has engaged in a policy of family separation, which it ramped up in 2018. Under that policy, families apprehended for crossing the border outside of a port of entry were forcibly separated. Parents were placed in adult detention while their children were sent to shelters for unaccompanied minors. They were frequently subjected to cruel conditions of confinement, including overcrowding and the inability to obtain adequate nutrition, hygiene, medical care or mental health services. Notably, the administration expressly announced its family separation policy as a tactic to deter Central American migrants from seeking safety in the United States.

In these facilities, parents and children endured weeks or even months without contact with one another. Parents and their children did not know when or if they would be reunited because immigration officials would not provide any information. The separation of parents from their children has predictably caused significant and long-lasting trauma to these families who had sought refuge in the United States.

Through the Sheller Center for Social Justice, we represented eight families in administrative claims against the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), and other government agencies responsible for this inhumane policy. These claims are brought under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”), which allows individuals to hold the federal government accountable for personal injury. Filing these claims is a required step to preserve these families’ right to file a federal lawsuit to obtain relief for the unspeakable harm they suffered.

Our work began by interviewing each family. Question by question, we pieced together their experiences under the family separation policy. We then drafted detailed narratives for each family beginning with their entry into the United States until their reunification and release from detention. Details included detention center conditions, interactions with immigration officers, and most importantly, the emotional and physical impact on the families. This narrative became the central part of the administrative claim.

This effort to assist families in preserving their rights under the FTCA has allowed us to practice important lawyering skills. We talked through the relevant law and scope of representation with clients and answered their questions. We practiced the art of interviewing: how to build trust, sort through facts, and develop a cohesive narrative. As a group, we discussed at length and had the opportunity to engage in trauma-informed interviewing, a skill that few classes cover. We also researched the applicable tort law in the relevant jurisdictions in anticipation of filing federal litigation.

Beyond these skills, these families have taught us so much. Discussing immigration laws and policies and seeing their impact on the news does not prepare one to hear the stories first-hand. After speaking with these families, who have endured so much at the hands of our government, we have a deeper understanding of what a migrant experiences after he or she crosses into the United States. Their courage is remarkable and has inspired us as future lawyers. They fled to the United States to escape unimaginable abuse and even threats to their life and families. Even after that trauma, they incredibly still had the courage to share their experiences under the family separation policy. One client explained to us that she is motivated to share her experience, although it is very painful to recall, to raise awareness and prevent others from enduring it. In drafting these claims, we developed an appreciation of the meaningful role an attorney can play in people’s lives. We can help to provide a remedy, in the form of compensatory damages, and even support our clients in their healing processes.

The following students participated in this effort to obtain relief for families harmed by the government’s family separation policy: Erin Agnew, ‘21; Mana Aliabadi, ‘22; Emily Alvarez, ‘21; Elizabeth Castillo, ‘22; Stephanie Curl, ‘21; Dan Davis, ‘21; Laura DiGiulio, ‘21; Daniela Florido, ‘22; Theresa Glinski, ‘21; Sarah Hampton, ‘22; Lauren Leiggi, ‘21; Maya Lucyshyn, ‘22; Pretty Martinez, ‘20; Reena Naik, ‘21; Brittany Petrillo, ‘21; Natalia Ruggiero, ‘20; Kate Sears, ‘21; and Maria Thomson, ‘22. Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales created the project with the support of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). Professors Jennifer Lee and Mary Levy also supervised student teams.

Judge Cites Sheller Report Granting Motion to Suppress and Terminate Immigration Proceedings

An Immigration Judge recently granted an immigrant’s motion to suppress and terminate proceedings after a local police officer made a basic traffic stop and then called ICE.  The court found that while the initial stop was lawful, the extension of the stop to interrogate the individual about their immigration status and to contact ICE violated the Fourth Amendment. It found that such violations were widespread based on a recently released report from the Sheller Center, called Interlocking Systems: How Pennsylvania Counties and Local Police Are Assisting ICE to Deport Immigrants. The court stated that that the report “allows the Court to reconsider its previous findings by demonstrating ICE’s concerted effort to encourage local law enforcement’s unconstitutional collaboration.” Considering this landscape, the Court found that the officer’s acts fit into a widespread pattern of misconduct.

Judge Cites Sheller Report Granting Motion to Suppress and Terminate Immigration Proceedings

An Immigration Judge recently granted an immigrant’s motion to suppress and terminate proceedings after a local police officer made a basic traffic stop and then called ICE.  The court found that while the initial stop was lawful, the extension of the stop to interrogate the individual about their immigration status and to contact ICE violated the Fourth Amendment. It found that such violations were widespread based on a recently released report from the Sheller Center, called Interlocking Systems: How Pennsylvania Counties and Local Police Are Assisting ICE to Deport Immigrants. The court stated that that the report “allows the Court to reconsider its previous findings by demonstrating ICE’s concerted effort to encourage local law enforcement’s unconstitutional collaboration.” Considering this landscape, the Court found that the officer’s acts fit into a widespread pattern of misconduct.

Upcoming event: “Banned: Immigration Enforcement in the Time of Trump”

The Center invites you to hear Penn State Prof. Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia discuss her new book, “Banned: Immigration Enforcement in the Time of Trump,” September 12th at noon at the Law School, Klein Hall Room 2B. Prof. Jill Family of Widener Law School will offer comments.

This presentation is co-sponsored by the Law School’s Institute for International Law and Public Policy, National Lawyers Guild, the South Asian Law Students Association and the Sheller Center for Social Justice.