Gavel Grab

Priest's Tale Reveals Overloaded Immigration Courts

Roman Catholic priest Robert Vitaglione has been taking on a huge caseload of legal representation of immigrants in court for decades. The only problem: he is not a lawyer.

Father Vitaglione has done his best to represent immigrants in New York, but has finally been instructed not to do so any more. The New York Times reports: “Disheveled and disorganized, Father Vitaglione sometimes jeopardized cases with his erratic behavior, according to a federal finding.” He began taking on more cases than were manageable and some of his work began to fall through the cracks, resulting in poor outcomes for his clients.

The departure of Father Vitaglione has exposed a gaping hole in representation for immigrants. Emergency meetings have been convened to address the even greater lack of representation for immigrants, in the wake of Vitaglione’s departure. He was not the only nonlawyer representing illegal immigrants, a practice permitted in immigration courts. The article reports:

“New York has dozens of these so-called accredited representatives. But none had the caseload or recognition of Father Vitaglione, who was known inside the courthouses as Father Bob. He had more clients than the Legal Aid Society’s entire immigration unit.”

Opinions differ on whether “Father Bob” was providing a service that helped keep overloaded court dockets moving, or if he was simply masking the extent of the problem. That problem, however, is undeniable; sixty percent of detained immigrants and twenty seven percent of nondetained immigrants were unrepresented in court in New York in 2009. The article continues:

“Immigrants who represent themselves also slow down a system with no room for slack. Each judge’s docket can reach 2,000 cases, and immigrants without lawyers are left with only judges to explain technicalities, help with paperwork and assume some responsibilities of counsel.”

Many lawyers hope this will be a wake-up call for the legal community, and it will find a solution for the vastly inadequate representation in immigration courts. Until then, Father Bob continues to “supervise” cases taken on by his organization, the Committee of Our Lady of Loreto for Hispanic Immigration Affairs.

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