Stephen Manning
Ashoka Fellow since 2020   |   United States

Stephen Manning

Innovation Law Lab
Stephen Manning is building communities and legal structures that protect immigrants from the imbalance of power and otherization that create abuses in our current system. He is doing this by…
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Stephen Manning is building communities and legal structures that protect immigrants from the imbalance of power and otherization that create abuses in our current system. He is doing this by reimagining how immigration law is practiced and creating new structures to support immigrant defense work in communities.

Stephen launched the Innovation Law Lab to change the immigration system in two ways. First, he is implementing Massive Collaborative Representation for all asylum-seekers, which ensures that every immigrant who needs legal representation receives it. Second, he is building a Rights Architecture, which meshes community organizing, immigrant defense work, immigrant rights development, and public discourse on immigrants to create inclusion throughout the country.

This description of Stephen Manning's work was prepared when Stephen Manning was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2020.


Stephen Manning is building communities and legal structures that protect immigrants from the imbalance of power and otherization that create abuses in our current system. He is doing this by reimagining how immigration and asylum law are practiced and creating new structures to support immigrant defense work in communities across the nation.

The New Idea

In the United States, asylum seekers have legal rights, but an opaque and difficult-to-navigate system often ensures these rights are not experienced in practice. Many immigrants must face the system with no legal support at all and often limited English. They are facing a system that changes rapidly and can be difficult to follow for even experienced advocates. Because the government has significantly more power than the asylum seeker, often the asylum seeker’s rights are not protected to the fullest extent. Stephen Manning is building a counter-structure of legal power to stand against this. He is doing this in two interwoven ways.  

First, he is building a system to aggregate the power enshrined in the legal relationship between lawyer and client. He is scaling access to that relationship by reimagining it. Rather than pairing one lawyer with one client, lawyers work in “massive collaborative” groups to provide representation to large groups of refugees, each working remotely on components of a legal strategy that is coordinated by people on the ground where the refugee is detained or where they live. This new model, in addition to providing services to large numbers of people in dire need, aggregates case data to better-equip teams to build legal strategy, as well as to push and litigate for policy change. The ultimate goal is to build a network of lawyers working together that functions as the largest “consumer” of the asylum process giving the lawyers—and thus their clients—real power at the system-level. This will represent a significant opportunity for change.  

Second, Stephen has designed a Rights Architecture, a holistic approach to immigrant inclusion, and is working to resource its implementation in Portland and beyond. He is partnering with local government to embed publicly funded lawyers into the system to support the direct service work done by local organizations, like know-your-rights trainings, safety planning for families at risk, monitoring courts and raids for illegalities and abuses, and working with immigrants to move them from precarious immigration statuses to more stable ones. These organizations are being brought into the Rights Architecture, which provides them with resources and breaks down silos. This will seed and support an ecosystem that cultivates a sense of security and belonging for immigrants and makes it harder to otherize and exclude them, bolstering what already exists and encouraging gap-filling with transparency, community, and resources.  

Together these initiatives shift the systemic power from the opaque and inhumane systems in which it currently resides into transparent systems predicated on human rights and human dignity.  

The Problem

The mass incarceration and deportation of immigrants is a worldwide phenomenon. Human displacement caused by war, civil conflict, violence and climate change forces an estimated 28,300 people to flee their homes each day. Immigrant populations, particularly immigrant populations of color in white-majority countries, are singled out for unjust and unfair deportations in spite of longstanding community ties. The United States, like other nations, uses tools of mass incarceration and the criminalization of migration to deny access to justice and maximize deportations. In the United States, the legal community’s traditional model of response has failed to adequately defend against and resist the creation of this mass deportation structure. 

The power asymmetry in the deportation process creates unhealthy ecosystems where power, rather than the law and facts, determine outcomes. Once, while Stephen was representing a client at a refugee detention center, he corresponded with a deportation officer asking for the client’s release. He wrote a letter that outlined the law and made a legitimate argument with regards to the eligibility and need for release of his client and her young children. The officer came into the jail visitation room to see him, crumpled the request for release up, and tossed it on the floor and left. At that moment, Stephen realized that the law only exists when there is power. At that moment, he had no power because his client had no power: she and her children were refugees fleeing horrific violence and were scheduled for deportation. Every refugee mother and child in that detention center was scheduled for deportation and there was nothing they could do to stop it. For his client, it was a matter of life or death. For Stephen, it was a matter of losing faith in what the law and the rule of law meant.  

Over the past few years, communities, local governments, and philanthropic organizations have become increasingly aware of these problems and, subsequently, have started to build initiatives to address them. Allies have taken to the streets in protest of existing policies, immigration advocacy and legal representation organizations in the United States have started receiving tremendous support and investment, and various regions have launched pro bono representation programs in an attempt to remedy these issues. However, most initiatives are building capacity using existing legal representation models which do not address the underlying power asymmetry. Adding more lawyers and advocates that continue to work in silos does not aggregate power or build an effective counter-structure to the federal government's massive deportation apparatus. More of the same misses the opportunity to change the structures forever. 

The Strategy

Stephen launched the Innovation Law Lab to change the immigration system in two ways. First, he is implementing Massive Collaborative Representation for all asylum-seekers, which ensures that every immigrant who needs legal representation receives it. Second, he is building a Rights Architecture, which meshes community organizing, immigrant defense work, immigrant rights development, and public discourse on immigrants to create inclusion throughout the country.  

In 2017, the last year for which we have data, roughly 90% of applicants were denied without legal representation, whereas almost half of applicants with legal representation were approved for asylum. Access to legal representation, therefore, permits five times as many people with credible fear of persecution and violence in their home countries to stay in the United States and Stephen is providing that legal representation.     

Massive Collaborative representation is scalable enough to provide legal representation to every immigrant because it breaks down the one-to-one relationship between lawyers and clients. Instead, groups of 20-30 lawyers are enabled to represent hundreds of people at once. This is done using software that aggregates these cases and breaks the legal work down into its component parts. Stephen’s team built this software and it is now widely used by organizations in the immigrant defense space.  Breaking legal work down into discrete tasks makes individual lawyers fungible. For example, the detention center at Artesia, where Obama first implemented family detention in 2014, received an influx of volunteers eager to do legal work but still inadequate to the task of representing every person individually. The software was used to enable volunteers to stay for a week, jump in, get as much work done as possible, and then seamlessly hand the work over to the next round of volunteers. Using this system, lawyers are also able to work remotely on these cases, supported by on-the-ground work by community organizations who do not necessarily need legal expertise themselves.  

Stephen now convenes one of the largest collective pro bono networks in the United States — a network of advocates dedicated to defending the rule of law in the immigration and refugee process. And with this representation, such unprecedentedly high rates of detainees were passing their credible fear interviews and winning the right to be released that Stephen’s team has twice shut down detention centers, first in in Artesia, New Mexico and then in Dilley, Texas. 

Massive Collaborative Representation is now being used in areas traditionally hostile to immigration, including Atlanta, GA and Charlotte, NC, as well as various detention centers at the border, and Tijuana, Mexico, where many people seeking asylum in the United States are currently congregated as a result of new Trump administration asylum policy.  The database of aggregated legal work arms lawyers with evidence of trends rather than simply anecdata. Access to a database of hundreds of cases allows them to point to trends when arguing precedent for something or pointing to patterns in government enforcement. Of course, the government is armed with enormous amounts of data on aggregated cases, but does not share that data with anyone. This database levels the playing field as much as possible.  

Due to the drawn-out nature of asylum proceedings and the tightening and shifting regulations they are governed by, it is difficult to say what percentage of cases in recent years have resulted in success, as so few of them have been completed. There are more than 700,000 pending asylum cases and the average wait time for a hearing is just under two years. However, compared to the national average, people represented through Immigration Law Lab’s supermassive collaborative system are seeing significantly better results on several metrics. For example, where only about 30% of asylum seekers in detention are released on bond in Georgia, a particularly difficult state in which to receive asylum, 91% of cases were released on bond after being represented through a program Stephen rolled out. On average, they also paid less than half as much bond money to be released, ($3,500 rather than $7,500 dollars), a significant financial relief for the disadvantaged communities asylum seekers typically come from. Stephen’s model has won release for 100% of asylum seekers in several other detention centers. These significantly improved outcomes indicate that the representation these people receive is effective. Professional pro-bono lawyers advocate before judges at all of these bond hearings, supported in doing the necessary preparations by other volunteers who do not need to be lawyers. 

Simply reacting to the incarceration of thousands of immigrants, however, is not enough to keep these communities safe and free. To that end, Stephen has designed the Immigrant Rights Architecture, a holistic approach to building an environment where immigrant rights and immigrant inclusion are integral aspects of a community’s systems.  The system breaks down the work of protecting and supporting immigrants into six zones based on at what point an immigrant navigating the asylum-seeking process is experiencing a rights violation.  

First, prevention and education activities, like informing people about their rights and creating family safety plans, must take place before rights violations occur.  Secondly, rapid response networks of raid reporters, legal observers, safety planners, and lawyers must be in place and ready for the moment of unconstitutional enforcement action. Third, in the immediate aftermath of unconstitutional enforcement, it is crucial to deploy law and community organizing to lawfully disrupt detention and deportation.  The fourth zone is defense in immigration court. The fifth, redress and accountability, comprises actions that hold people and systems accountable for discriminatory or illegal treatment of immigrants. The sixth zone is situated in the center, coordinating the work of community groups and legal support in the other five zones. This allows the whole ecosystem to function more effectively and spurs more rapid innovation because no-one is working in a silo. Lawyers and community organizers work in tandem throughout. 

This system has been most completely implemented in Oregon, where 50+ organizations are working together to build and maintain the ecosystem, including both legal services organizations and community groups. Immigration Law Lab and its partners successfully petitioned the Oregon state government to grant $2 million dollars for this systemic work, including funding a coordinator to work within the sixth zone and a policy director for the Oregon state legislature to support on the creation of immigration-friendly policies. Stephen founded Immigration Law Lab in 2014. Last year’s budget was $725,000.

The Person

In the early nineties, Stephen worked with gay rights groups in Oregon, first to defeat a viciously anti-gay ballot measure that nearly became part of the Oregon state constitution. Once the ballot measure failed, it became clear that they needed to engage in more systemic mindset-change work to prevent this from recurring. Towards that end, Stephen worked with the Speak Up Project in rural Oregon, Montana, and Idaho on community education and training people to be more effective educators during debates and community forums by sharing stories from the real lives of gay people. Using a train-the-trainers approach they worked with community organizations to help them build capacity. This work informs his work today, particularly lessons learned around the importance of building alliances and community among different organizations, respecting that different models work better in different places, and supporting the people who live where you work.  

While working with Speak Up, he was also teaching ESL classes for elementary schoolers, including children whose fear of being deported kept them from consistently doing their homework. Stephen naively believed that young children were not at risk of deportation. One day he took the children and their families to immigration court, a mistake which nearly resulted in their deportations. After that, he connected the families to nonprofits doing this work and became enmeshed in the work himself. The young people involved are all still in the country and Stephen has since presided over some of their weddings.  

Stephen went to law school in order to be the bridge between the law and the community organizations doing on-the-ground work. He founded Immigrant Law Group PC in order to take a more civil rights oriented approach to immigration law than was typically practiced in Oregon at the time, an experience that helped him build credibility with the lawyers and community organizations he works with now.  

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