Revisiting The Highest Profile Pro Bono Immigration Case Of 2020

President Joe Biden has basically stripped away nearly all of the misdeeds of the Trump presidency with a litany of executive orders — because many of those misdeeds were carried out by executive order themselves — but the stain won’t really wipe away so easily. Biden plans to allow many more immigrants and asylum seekers into the country over the next year or so, but fallout from Trump’s policies continues to haunt the new administration. 

Last year, Sidley Austin provided pro bono services during a joint lawsuit with Harvard Law School Clinic against the Department of Homeland Security because of illegal rules under enforcement by the Trump administration.

One such rule denied asylum seekers who were ever convicted of a felony or misdemeanor (with some exceptions). The rule went even further by barring entry to anyone who had ever helped one of these people.

The complaint filed by Austin and Harvard Law said, “These changes will dramatically curtail the availability of asylum to people fleeing persecution, in contravention of the INA’s plain language and the United States’ international commitments. The rule will thus have a devastating impact on asylum-seekers and immigration legal services providers — including plaintiffs and the communities they serve.”

The National Immigration Project, National Lawyers Guild D.C., and Immigrant Defense Project N.Y. helped file the complaint. They eventually won.

The argument was based on the simple fact that the restrictions would complicate the lawyers’ abilities to shift resources to help their asylum-seeking clients — or even meet with them at all. The rule would force the pro bono team to spend more time on each individual client’s case (because the government had just made them far more complicated), which would reduce the number of people they could assist and also cut off grant money, which was based on the number of people assisted. 

Trump’s rule would not only have applied to convicted criminals — but also to convicted criminals whose records were vacated or expunged.