Burlington Free Press | February 24, 2017

Date: 
February 24, 2017

Immigration executive orders stress Vermont lawyers

Vermont's immigration lawyers have been scrambling to provide information to worried residents in the wake of President Donald Trump's executive orders, but they said earlier this week that resources available are still not enough to meet the demand.

A diverse audience showed up to an immigration rights session in the Old North End on Tuesday to get answers from legal experts.

One attendee asked if panelists Michele Jenness, Erin Jacobsen and Susan Sussman could come talk to high school students about the changes in immigration law. Another asked if the panelists could hold a session in her community.

"One of the problems that's happening right now is that immigration and this stuff is changing all the time," said Barb Prine, a Vermont Legal Aid attorney who helped facilitate the Q&A. "So these three people are three of the eight or ten people in the state who know the answers and then there's a bunch of other people who don't know the answers, so everybody wants to talk to them all the time," she said.

Instead, Prine suggested residents in need of answers come to one of the information sessions that are organized by Vermont Legal Aid and the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, which do not represent immigrants in individual cases but have been helping provide information.

Privately practicing immigration attorneys are also helping to fill the gap.

"I'm volunteering more of my time than I ever have before," said Debbie Volk, a Burlington-based attorney. Volk has also been involved with Attorney General TJ Donovan's immigration task force.

The two attorneys, Jenness and Jacobsen, on Tuesday's panel represented local nonprofits that provide legal counsel on immigration issues. Jenness is the only lawyer working at Burlington-based Association of Africans Living in Vermont.

Jacobsen, who works for the Vermont Law School's South Royalton Legal Clinic, said she sees many from Chittenden County. Another attorney at the South Royalton clinic also works on immigration cases, and the clinic just hired a graduate of Vermont Law School to help the two attorneys.

The clinic handled 52 immigration cases in 2016 across Vermont, which includes asylum seekers and domestic violence victims. Immigration casework made up about 29 percent of the caseload and accounts for about 20 percent of the clinic's $660,000 budget, according to Executive Director James May.

Future funding is a concern, Jacobsen said. About half of the money that goes towards immigration work comes from the federal government. In the current political climate, she's concerned about that money going away.

Lawyers, like Jacobsen, have to adapt to helping clients when the legal landscape of immigration law can shift very quickly and very suddenly. [...]