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.