Every year, the BBA President and President-Elect travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with our representatives in Congress and advocate for issues that are important to our membership and the legal profession as a whole. This annual event, organized by the American Bar Association (ABA) is known as ABA Day in Washington, and it’s one of our most important lobbying days of the year. This year, however, the in-person component of ABA Day was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and we were forced to adapt our advocacy to fit with the challenges of the current global situation. BBA President Chris Netski and President-Elect Marty Murphy participated in the first-ever Digital ABA Day on April 22 and 23, 2020, and advocated for three principal issues: Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funding; the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program; and immigration.
The Legal Services Corporation was created to promote equal access to justice by providing funding assistance to civil legal aid programs that exist in every congressional district. Legal aid attorneys help low-income clients with a multitude of legal issues such as family law, housing, employment, immigration, and more. The BBA supports civil legal aid at the local level by advocating for Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) funding in the state budget every year, and supports the LSC (alongside the ABA) at the federal level for the same reasons.
LSC is the single largest funder of civil legal aid in the nation and LSC-funded programs help nearly 2 million people every year. (In Massachusetts, they assist the Volunteer Lawyers Project, Northeast Legal Aid, Community Legal Aid, South Coastal Counties Legal Services, and the Massachusetts Justice Project.) However, the need for civil legal aid far outweighs the current resources, and that is why the ABA is advocating for an increase in LSC’s annual appropriation to $652.6 million. This need is especially at the forefront now, as the COVID-19 pandemic brings to light the inequalities in access to justice that have always been present. The pandemic has already caused a significant increase in the need for legal help with evictions and unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, scams aimed at the elderly, and temporary restraining orders needed to protect survivors of domestic violence.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program was enacted by Congress in 2007 in order to make it financially feasible for law school graduates to pursue public interest careers by offering partial student loan forgiveness in exchange for a service commitment of at least ten years. This program is essential to the legal community, which relies on its public servants to provide legal help to those most in need. However, certain members of Congress are calling for the program to be suspended, claiming that it is too expensive for the federal government.
The ABA is strongly in support of the PSLF program and believes that repealing it would be of significant detriment to the legal community and society as a whole, as it would make it more difficult for law school graduates with significant debt to choose careers in public service. The BBA supports this program and also recognizes that communities rely on public service professionals especially during crises, like the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The BBA has advocated for the fair and just treatment of immigrants for a number of years. Since 2018, we have been guided by our Immigration Principles, which outline the values that are most important to us as an association. Marty Murphy, who chaired the Working Group that drafted the Principles, outlined for our representatives the most important immigration-related issues that we are tracking at the moment.
The first is the ongoing concern with immigrants’ access to courthouses. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been conducting civil immigration arrests in and around courthouses, which produces a chilling effect that may prevent undocumented immigrants from fully participating in the justice system. This is particularly concerning in domestic violence cases, for example, where victims are afraid to present themselves in court due to potential immigration actions, and therefore unable to pursue legal action against their attackers. It has also caused defendants to not show up in court, as Chief Justice Gants and Chief Justice Carey pointed out in a letter to ICE earlier this year. This also prevents the justice system from functioning properly.
The second issue is one that we spoke out recently about in our letter to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf. The letter urges the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to instruct U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to ensure that foreign-trained healthcare workers are able to deploy their energy to aid our communities that have been devastated by COVID-19. USCIS has the statutory authority to expedite the review of petitions and applications involving healthcare workers. DHS is also equipped with a wide array of tools to recruit and retain critical healthcare workers.
We are thankful to have met with five legislators’ offices: Congresswoman Katherine Clark (MA-5); Congressman Jim McGovern (MA-2); Congressman Joe Kennedy III (MA-4); Congresswoman Lori Trahan (MA-3); and Congressman Richard Neal (MA-1). We are happy to share that all five offices expressed support on all of the above issues.
We look forward to continuing our advocacy and supporting our members of Congress throughout the pandemic and beyond. If you’d like to express support on these issues to your Senator and Representative, you can find contact information for them here. The ABA also has issue-specific pre-populated forms for your use on LSC and PSLF.
Government Relations Assistant
Boston Bar Association