As part of the firm’s Political Asylum and Immigrants’ Rights Pro Bono Project, lawyers across Sidley’s U.S. offices have teamed up with prominent nonprofit organizations on multiple federal cases to protect refugees, immigrants, and the legal service providers who represent them. Sidley’s trailblazing work has successfully blocked a series of federal government actions that courts held unlawful under the United States Constitution or the Administrative Procedure Act.
“A lot of our cases have been about ensuring that the federal government follows the law when it deals with immigrants and refugees,” said Sidley associate Naomi Igra, who has been a part of many of the Sidley teams handling impact immigration litigation since 2017. “Legal services organizations can’t provide effective representation to individuals seeking their help if the federal government acts in ways that are unconstitutional, contrary to law, or arbitrary and capricious.”
Among the policies Sidley challenged was the separation of immigrant parents from their children at the U.S. border, with a focus on the harm the policy caused to the mental health of separated family members. A cross-office effort comprising more than 50 of Sidley’s lawyers worked alongside Public Counsel, a longstanding partner of the firm. Together, they obtained a groundbreaking injunction requiring the U.S. government to provide family-based mental health services to address the trauma caused by family separation.
Another team of Sidley litigators joined with several advocacy groups to fight the controversial 2018 “public charge” rule, which aimed to prevent immigrants from using public benefits to which they are entitled, including health coverage and nutritional assistance for immigrant children. After years of work, the rule is no longer being defended in courts around the country as of March 2021.
In collaboration with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (AAAJ-ALC), Sidley represented several Cambodian nationals who were targeted in 2017 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during surprise raids in California. The AAAJ-ALC sought Sidley’s help on behalf of the class of Cambodians, many of whom had fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime decades ago. The partnership led to a victory in 2020 that established that class members have a right to notice, a copy of their records, and an opportunity to consult with an attorney before they can be detained on old removal orders.
“Sidley attorneys and staff advocated fiercely for the class, securing an unprecedented injunction so that class members have a meaningful opportunity to fight deportation,” said Jenny Zhao, Staff Attorney at AAAJ-ALC. “The district court’s condemnation of ICE’s policy as ‘unthinkable’ and ‘heartless’ is a testament to the quality of Sidley’s representation.”
Sidley and AAAJ-ALC once again achieved a win in early 2021, blocking a last-minute executive order that attempted to remove essential safeguards for people challenging deportation orders. The team secured a nationwide injunction on behalf of several advocacy organizations named in the matter, including the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), which has been another recurrent partner in Sidley’s impact immigration litigation work.
Together with the ILRC, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), and several other organizations, Sidley took on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “fee rule,” which garnered significant attention for its attempts to dramatically raise the cost of naturalization and other applications, including an unprecedented charge for asylum applicants and hundreds of dollars in fees if asylum applicants sought employment authorization. Sidley and AILA succeeded in blocking the rule before it took effect.
Sidley also partnered with the AILA to block an executive order that would have prevented most lawful immigrants from entering the country without particular forms of potentially low-quality, high-cost private health insurance, contrary to congressional intent in the Affordable Care Act. The executive order has never taken effect thanks to Sidley’s unprecedented victory in district court and continued defense of the injunction before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The AILA honored Sidley with its 2020 “Michael Maggio Memorial Pro Bono Award” for our pro bono work in the immigration field.
“In 2021, AILA and its membership continued to benefit from Sidley’s incredible pro bono victories in blocking many harmful and drastic immigration policies that sought to undermine the rights of noncitizens, including asylum seekers and separated family members,” said Jesse Bless, Director of Litigation for the AILA. “Our litigation with Sidley to stop the administration’s proposed fee rule exemplifies our strong partnership and commitment to working together in the pursuit of justice.”
On the heels of the victory in the fee rule case, the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic asked Sidley for help on a case to block a rule that would have created new bars to asylum eligibility. Success in that case led directly to representation of the same plaintiffs in a case in which Sidley helped block a rule that would have prevented most asylum seekers from making their claims and also eliminated critically important grounds for asylum, including protection for refugees fleeing gender-based violence.
“Thanks to Sidley’s critical support, we were able to join with other advocates and file lawsuits to stop the rules from taking effect, thereby defending the fundamental human rights of those seeking safety and protection in the United States,” said Sabrineh Ardalan, clinical professor at Harvard Law School and director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program.
Personal connections to the immigrant experience run particularly deep for a number of Sidley’s lawyers, including Naomi Igra, whose parents fled Poland when they were children during World War II.
“When my children study this difficult period in U.S. history, I want to be able to tell them that I used the power and resources I had available to me to do what I could to help refugees and immigrants enduring challenges like those my parents faced,” Igra said.
In addition to impact litigation, Sidley’s lawyers have written powerful amicus briefs to protect the rights of refugees. Leading the charge on a brief in partnership with Human Rights First, Sidley studied and took aim at the government’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forced countless asylum seekers to return to dangerous conditions in their home countries. Mark Herzog — then D.C. pro bono counsel — helped establish the relationship with Human Rights First when they sought representation as amicus in the Ninth Circuit. Sidley’s relationship with Human Rights First deepened over the years, and Sidley was selected to represent them in the United States Supreme Court. The brief drew signatures from more than 100 major advocacy organizations, including longstanding leaders in the field such as Amnesty International and the Anti-Defamation League.
“Rather than writing their own briefs, organizations signed on to ours because of the reputation of Human Rights First and the reputation that we’ve earned at Sidley,” Igra said. “There was a conscious matching of Human Rights First and Sidley as leaders in protecting the rights of refugees and immigrants,” she said.
“When the government’s policy forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their day in U.S. immigration court went up to the Supreme Court on appeal, Sidley made the first call to us offering assistance. I was not surprised,” said Hardy Vieux, who served Human Rights First as its Senior Vice President on Legal Initiatives when the matter went up to the Supreme Court. “Sidley has long stood by our side as we work to protect refugees,” he said.
While there may still be a long road ahead, Igra is optimistic about the law Sidley has helped develop. “What I hope we have established is that whatever immigration policy is made, the federal government cannot act in a way that violates the law, or is arbitrary or capricious toward refugees, immigrants, or the legal service providers that represent them,” she said. “In the last few years, Sidley has done a lot to establish that basic principle.”