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Dark Cloud in the Silver Lining : Amnesty Lawyers--Tide May Overwhelm Them

May 04, 1987|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

Atlanta attorney Dale Schwartz, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., cast a satisfied glance across the pin-striped and dark-suited crowd gathered a couple of months back in the rococo splendor of a ballroom at Washington's Mayflower Hotel.

"It's amazing how many people want to be immigration lawyers all of a sudden," he told the 200 or more attorneys meeting for intensive study of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the historic legislation that grants amnesty to millions of illegal aliens and imposes sanctions on employers who continue to hire illegal workers.

Schwartz, whose organization's membership has leaped from 2,000 to 2,400 since the immigration law was enacted in November, reminded the attorneys that even Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a chief sponsor of the legislation, has called the new law "an immigration lawyer's dream."

All along the border from Brownsville to San Diego and in the big cities like Los Angeles to which illegal aliens have migrated in a decades-old search for work and a better life in America, the legalization program has created unprecedented amounts of new business for lawyers who represent both would-be citizens and employers.

The silver lining, however, is accompanied by a cloud that has grown darker and more foreboding with the approach Tuesday of the start of the yearlong application period for the amnesty program.

So dramatic are the changes exacted by immigration reform and so huge are the numbers of people affected that officials of Bar associations, both nationally and in California, are fearful that the legal profession will be overwhelmed by the demand for its services and prove incapable of responding competently to the need.

Especially for the poor--a large number, if not the majority, of the aliens expected to apply for temporary legal residency--legal assistance may simply be unavailable, Bar leaders and immigrants' rights advocates say.

"People are going to have a hard time availing themselves of the benefits of legalization without representation and little chance of obtaining adequate representation--particularly if they cannot afford to hire lawyers," said Arthur Helton, a New York attorney who directs the political asylum project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

Officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service insist that the lawyer gap does not exist. The amnesty program has been designed so that most aliens can apply on their own or with help from the nonprofit agencies the immigration service has selected as "qualified designated entities," Duke Austin, a spokesman for the immigration service, said last week.

Those predicting a crunch blame, however, the immigration service for making the amnesty program so complex that they say--contrary to the expectations of Congress and the assurances of the agency--that many aliens will need a lawyer's advice to win legal residence.

Financial Barrier

"We always encourage people to get advice," said Father Richard Matty, director of the Catholic Church's migrant and refugee services in El Paso. "Someone just filling out an application or a notary filling out an application to me is not a good idea."

The cost of legal help is proving to be a barrier to getting assistance, however. "El Paso is a depressed area," Matty said. "For a lot of lower income people, even the lowest-price lawyer can be out of their price range."

Historically, moreover, the immigration Bar has been small, with only a handful of lawyers in each major city making their living in highly specialized combat with the immigration service bureaucracy. Although some attorneys have jumped into the game with the advent of the new law, no more than 10,000 of the nation's 700,000 lawyers will be prepared to represent alien clients seeking amnesty, according to New York attorney Robert Juceam, chairman of the immigration law committee of the American Bar Assn.'s litigation section.

Even if only 10% of the 1 million to 6 million aliens who may apply for amnesty in the next 12 months seek counsel, the inescapable conclusion is that the legal profession will fall short of meeting the demand, warned Juceam, who also is the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.'s general counsel.

"You do the division and you tell me how many of these people are going to get to these lawyers," he said.

Local Troubles

In city after city, meantime, local programs designed to provide free or reduced-cost legal aid to aliens unable to afford lawyers are either not funded, still in the planning stage or lacking the volunteer lawyers they need.

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