Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it without doing anything.” Thankfully for his clients, immigration lawyer Bryan Johnson isn’t the type of man who sees harm and does nothing. Standing six foot five, his imposing presence is the only thing wedged between his particularly vulnerable clients and the Obama administration’s unrelenting mission to deport child refugees back to countries where they face unspeakable violence and death.
His office, Amoachi and Johnson, PLLC, has represented over 400 Central American children mostly on a pro bono basis, winning more than 200 cases. He has testified before Congress and served as an expert consultant in litigation filed against the Obama administration to stop their unlawful practice of jailing immigrant children in deportation internment camps. He is a hero of the immigration bar.
Or at least he was.
To the shock of many, Johnson recently announced that he has left the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the country’s preeminent immigration bar association, over what he describes as a partisan agenda of shielding Democrats from scrutiny, while relentlessly attacking Republicans for political gain. As Johnson explains: “I chose not to renew my membership because AILA has consistently curtailed its advocacy to avoid alienating Obama administration officials when any reasonable adult who is witness to children being criminally abused is obligated to stop the abuser.” The point of his departure, he says, is “AILA never sought investigation into Obama and other high level officials despite knowledge of overwhelming evidence of civil rights crimes.”
The last straw for Johnson was when AILA honored Obama administration official Cecilia Muñoz as the keynote speaker at the bar association’s annual conference last summer. “AILA’s invitation to Cecilia Muñoz, who is directly responsible for inflicting severe harm (and likely culpable for committing civil rights child abuse crimes) on our children clients, was confirmation of what I have suspected for some time: that AILA is too beholden to Democratic Party establishment.”
Chuck Kuck, a former AILA president agrees. “It has been a concern for a long time and it has been raised by a number of AILA members with our new leadership. The perception and reality are going to take a while to clean up. It starts with changing the perception that our advocacy folks only work with and for Democrats, and then goes to our blogs and media relations, which have not held Democrats to the same standards we hold Republicans.”
Rank and file AILA members are similarly frustrated.
Immigration lawyer Amy Maldonado is a 14-year AILA member, a registered Democrat, and a two-time Obama voter. She too has expressed her serious concerns with the immigration bar association over the reluctance of AILA to directly take the administration to task. What adds to her problem, she explains, is when she sees “AILA leaders, past presidents and others going to Christmas parties at the White House while our country is putting traumatized child refugees in prisons, in violation of the law and basic human decency.”
For Maldonado, it would be one thing if rubbing shoulders with administration officials yielded results. To the contrary, she has found that AILA no longer serves as a powerful advocate for her clients, and instead she has seen the association’s effectiveness dwindle to almost nothing. “My perspective is that the Obama administration has shut AILA out of access to government and advocacy, and that AILA has meekly accepted that state of affairs.”
AILA member David Bennion has seen first-hand what can happen if your clients’ advocacy goes off message. Bennion’s exasperation has resulted in him leaving the Democratic Party altogether. What Bennion would like to see is AILA holding candidates from both parties accountable, especially Hillary Clinton. According to Bennion, Mrs. Clinton’s “send them back” record on child refugees “speaks for itself, and we can likely expect more of the same if she is elected.” And yet, you see very little, if any, criticism of Secretary Clinton from AILA.
It isn’t just insiders of the bar association who have taken notice of AILA’s disparate treatment of Democrats and Republicans.
Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Jr. wrote that “the Democratic-leaning group has taken a powder when it comes to criticizing a president whom many of its members support. That has begun to change recently, but it’s likely that this is only because Obama no longer has to face re-election. With AILA, politics always seems to get in the way of doing the right thing. But that’s what happens when you’re Democrats first, and advocates second.”
Immigration law publisher ILW.com, the internet’s leading immigration law portal, also weighed in commenting that “AILA has carried water for the current administration even while the administration has wreaked havoc on America’s immigrant communities.”
I asked Johnson if he would ever consider returning to AILA, and he said the following: “The partisan agenda AILA has for advancing Democrats is real, and I wouldn’t consider returning until they prioritize advocacy for immigrants over advocacy for one particular political party.”
Johnson isn’t holding his breath. With the Presidential Election on the horizon AILA spokespersons are regularly quoted attacking Republicans, while remaining silent on Hillary Clinton’s questionable and ever evolving positions on deporting child refugees.
As a member of AILA since 1997, I too share the concerns of Mr. Johnson and others. Affirmative steps need to be aggressively taken by AILA to address the very real perception that AILA is little more than a propaganda tool of the Democratic party, operating as the left’s version of FAIR or the Center for Immigration Studies.
In addition to undermining the association’s credibility, AILA’s adopted strategy of shaming Republican candidates while shielding Democrats has weakened the association’s standing as an authoritative voice on U.S. immigration law and policy. As a result, Republicans no longer view AILA as nonpartisan, and as we are painfully aware, reform can’t happen without Republican support.
Moving forward, AILA’s official advocacy efforts should be limited to scholarly interpretations of existing and proposed law, addressing deprivations of due process, and administrative deficiencies, with a focus on immigration policy and procedure so that the association may shed the perception that it is a partisan mouthpiece of the Democrats. Until it does, AILA will continue to be a part of the problem, rather than a conduit to the solution.
Matthew Kolken is an immigration lawyer and the managing partner of Kolken & Kolken, located in Buffalo, New York. His legal opinions and analysis are regularly solicited by various news sources, including MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post, Forbes Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times, among others. You can follow him @mkolken.
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