Often you hear of organizations that work directly with non-US citizens, but rarely do you come across resource centers that train people to work with them. The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) is an organization that not only seeks to improve immigration law and policy, but it also trains attorneys, paralegals and advocates who work with immigrants around the country.
Founded as the Golden Gate Immigration Clinic in 1979, the organization later became known as ILRC, and today their staff works with grassroots immigrant organizations to promote civic engagement and social change. HOLA! USA spoke with Eric Cohen, the Executive Director at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, for an in-depth understanding of how their organization is changing the narrative for immigrants.
What was your mission when launching ILRC: “In 1979, recognizing the scarcity of legal services available to the Bay Area’s immigrant community – and the need for education among legal professionals – Professor Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at Golden Gate University’s School of Law, established a legal clinic. Within a few years that clinic evolved into the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC.) The ILRC works to build a democratic society that values diversity and the rights of all people. We promote a vision of racial justice that advances the rights of all immigrants, including those who have had contact with the criminal legal system.”
How has it grown over the years: “From a small law clinic to a national nonprofit focused on ensuring that immigrants and their families can stay together in this country and thrive, the ILRC has evolved into an ardent defender of immigrant rights. In 1987, the ILRC worked with others to pursue a seminal precedent-setting case all the way to the Supreme Court. INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca argued and won a more generous standard for deciding asylum claims that is still the rule of law. The importance of Cardoza-Fonseca cannot be overstated. Asylum cases call for decisions over life and death for immigrants who have risked their lives and sacrificed everything to escape violence and persecution. The ILRC was instrumental in making this happen. The current and ongoing effort to prevent asylum seekers from entering the country is an attempt to circumvent US law and to go against our values as a nation of immigrants.”
Best part of forming it: “The representation of Iranian students in response during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 and the Cardoza-Fonseca case had a profound impact on our country’s immigration system and have literally saved thousands of lives. They also helped establish the reputation of the ILRC as a formidable fighter for immigrant rights. In its over 40 year history, the ILRC has helped to change immigration law, and has helped to implement and/or ensure fair and just enforcement of laws, like California’s sanctuary policy. We have heard from impacted communities about how having fairer and more just immigration laws has helped people be able to stay in this country, preserving family units. We seek and amplify the voices of the directly affected in our work and make sure that they are included in the debate around immigration policies.”
Uplifting message for the future: “The ILRC has been protecting immigrant rights for over 40 years, and we plan to continue to stand up for and with immigrants, community groups and the immigration legal field until immigrants are treated fairly and justly. The immigration backlash that started in the 1990s—and which we are still experiencing today—has been particularly harsh for immigrants who have crossed paths with the criminal justice system. Suddenly, a very minor offense committed many years ago could lead to deportation that devastates entire families. While many in the immigrant rights movement started talking about ‘good immigrants’ and ‘bad immigrants,’ the ILRC made the bold choice to fight for all immigrants through our national Immigrant Justice Network. Additionally, the ILRC is proud to partner with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office’s Immigration Unit and other Defenders in California and throughout the United States on a model partnership that counsels immigrants on the immigration consequences of criminal convictions. The ILRC has been a leader in giving such consultations for several decades and is committed to continuing to fight for immigrants who have had contact with the criminal legal system. An important strategy in the resistance to mass deportation includes local sanctuary policies in which cities, counties and states disentangle law enforcement from immigration enforcement and discourage local authorities from doing ICE’s work. The ILRC has served as a national leader, offering policy analysis and technical assistance to dozens of local jurisdictions. The Supreme Court recently refused to hear the federal government’s challenge to California’s sanctuary policy, thus protecting the state’s right to prevent state and local law enforcement from helping ICE by detaining immigrants. Starting in the 1990s and continuing through today, the ILRC has fought relentlessly for the protection of the most vulnerable immigrants in our communities through programs such as:
- The Violence Against Women Act, which protects undocumented women caught in abusive relationships
- U-Visas for immigrants who are victims or witnesses of serious crimes
- T-Visas for immigrant victims of trafficking S
- Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for children and youth who have made the long and dangerous journey to America, sometimes completely on their own, in order to escape unimaginable abuse, neglect, persecution, and gang violence
That is why our catalog of 21 legal practitioner manuals includes publications that educate attorneys, judges, and community advocates on these important forms of immigration relief. We believe these policies embody the values of a country that holds itself up as a humanitarian leader for the rest of the world.”
Who uplifts you: “Immigrants and their families uplift the ILRC. The board and staff of the ILRC are some of the most dedicated, experienced, passionate and loyal advocates of immigrant rights and their commitment to ensuring that immigrants and their families are seen, heard and defended drives our work to ensure that anyone who wishes to call this country their home has the ability to do so. The fierce advocacy by members of the immigration law field and community groups representing immigrants inspire us to join them and others in the immigrant rights space, to continue to fight for the rights of immigrants and their families.”
Who do you hope to uplift with your organization: “Since the beginning, the ILRC has valued its partnerships with grassroots immigrant leaders and community organizers as an effective strategy for creating legal and social change through immigrant civic participation, leadership programs and outreach and education. We forged ties with others who work with immigrants – public defenders, children’s lawyers, social workers and teachers. One of ILRC’s programmatic efforts was to launch a ground-breaking effort to encourage immigrants to naturalize and to prepare them for civic responsibility. We promoted an innovative approach to helping people complete their naturalization applications in workshops, significantly improving the naturalization process. This work helped lay the foundation for the national New Americans Campaign that we rolled out in 2011. Since then, with the help of 200 partners in 21 cities and several funders, the New Americans Campaign has completed over 469,000 applications for citizenship, many of whom have become voters and civic participants.”
Future goals: “The ILRC has grown its presence from its headquarters in San Francisco to include offices in California’s Central Valley, Washington, D.C., San Antonio and Austin. In the past ten years, the ILRC has grown from 20 to 55 staff members, nearly half of whom are attorneys. We anticipate scaling our staff to grow our organizational expertise in various immigration law areas. We also anticipate growing in the field of immigrant rights organizing to ensure that immigrants and community groups have access to and benefit from experienced immigrant rights organizers versed in the best practices of immigrant rights organizing. The ILRC anticipates continuing to expand its presence across the country, where the fight for immigrant rights needs us the most. We are constantly pivoting to work in areas of immigration law that are most urgent and to create and update manuals and materials, as well as develop and present webinars and to educate and inform the immigrant rights legal field on how to best represent and defend their clients.”