RMIAN Turns 20 The History and Work of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, 1220 COBJ, Vol. 49, No. 11 Pg. 38

PositionVol. 49, 11 [Page 38]

49 Colo.Law. 38

RMIAN Turns 20 The History and Work of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network

Vol. 49, No. 11 [Page 38]

Colorado Lawyer

December, 2020



This article takes an up close look at the service provision side of immigration law in Colorado. It celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network by relating its history in the context of developments in immigration law.

The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, or RMIAN, is 20 years old this year. RMIAN has now been around for almost an entire generation, but it feels like it was born just yesterday. This article discusses RMIAN's history and its growth alongside developments in immigration law.

What is RMIAN?

RMIAN is a nonprofit organization serving low-income adults and children in immigration proceedings. "RMIAN promotes knowledge of legal rights, provides effective representation to ensure due process, works to improve detention conditions, and promotes a more humane immigration system, including alternatives to detention."1

RMIAN's beginnings are rooted in shared values that brought its founders together and remain at the core of its mission. The RMIAN story reflects a balance between ideals and pragmatism in the practice of immigration law.

The authors have been involved in RMIAN from its inception and share its story to highlight the dedication of immigration practitioners to RMIAN's core idea that justice for immigrants is justice for all. This goal motivates RMIAN's collaborative network, which includes hundreds of lawyers and other volunteers who often say that their work on a RMIAN case was one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives.

Today RMIAN is a vibrant organization with a sophisticated and committed staff, as well as a broad network of volunteers with diverse skills and experiences who deliver a variety of interlocking programs to a vast array of immigrant clients and communities. RMIAN allows thousands of individuals in Colorado to navigate a complex immigration system with the benefit of legal assistance. But it wasn't always that way.

The Origin Story

RMIAN started with a total budget of about $5,000, enough to pay a part-time law student. It was unknown whether the organization would expire when the $5,000 ran out, but its founders took a chance, knowing that even that small amount would mean help for a few people and make it a meaningful effort.

In the early 1990s, Dan Kowalski, chair of the Colorado Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), and Hiroshi Motomura, professor at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, recognized a need for immigrant representation in the Denver area, and they joined forces to find a solution.

Then as now, the federal government held deportation hearings, some in the federal building in downtown Denver, and some at the immigration detention facility in Aurora. Then as now, many individuals at risk of deportation had valid claims under U.S. law to remain in the United States. But they often didn't know how to access lawful status, and the government doesn't provide lawyers for individuals facing deportation who can't afford one. Many of these individuals don't speak English, and in the 1990s there was no system for informing them about their basic rights. And then as now, they were locked up.

Dan knew immigration lawyers who could be counted on to take an occasional pro bono case. These lawyers were also willing to mentor other volunteer lawyers who didn't have much immigration law knowledge or experience. And Hiroshi knew that law students at both the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Denver were eager to volunteer and gain practical experience by interviewing individuals in immigration detention and analyzing their cases with the help of immigration lawyers.

Many detained individuals were asylum seekers from all around the world. Others in need of legal representation were lawful permanent residents of the United States. Some had criminal convictions that made them de portable, but defenses were available under U.S. law to those who could document and argue their cases. Some were specified survivors of domestic violence eligible to self-petition for status, a form of humanitarian relief that would expand greatly in the 2000s to include visas for survivors of human trafficking and a range of other crimes. Once in a while a detained individual had a valid claim to U.S. citizenship but needed professional help to gather the relevant papers and prove their status. Then as now, at stake in these cases was the ability to utilize the rule of law.

It took a lot of work by many people to put RMIAN into action. Dan took the key step of organizing what became the Pro Bono Coordinating Committee of the Colorado Chapter of AILA (Coordinating Committee). The broader community of Colorado lawyers got involved. The Denver Bar Association, through its Metro Volunteer Lawyers program, contributed a phone line for detained individuals to leave messages asking for help with their cases. At a time before email, websites, and other electronic communication channels were available, this phone line was a lifeline. Law students from both CU and DU put their energy and talent to work with a budget that hovered around zero.

In retrospect it may seem that the path they took was inevitable. But these early years of what became RMIAN were precarious. At times, no students were available to conduct intake, so the project temporarily went dormant. But the idea didn't the, and these short periods of hibernation allowed the growing team of volunteers to regroup, to reassess and reaffirm its commitment to pro bono legal services for immigrants and return with more energy.

The model that would become central to RMIAN's identity and operations slowly evolved. There were more cases than immigration lawyers in the Denver area could handle, but there were plenty of lawyers willing to take pro bono cases if they received basic immigration law training and mentoring and could be matched with detained individuals needing representation.

The next step was an important collaboration with the CBA, which hosted what became an annual training program for volunteer lawyers with little or no knowledge of immigration law. The volunteers could attend an all-day training for a nominal charge in exchange for taking one pro bono case. At a time before it was possible to reach Colorado lawyers by email, CBA-CLE printed and mailed thousands of brochures for this annual training program.

Thus, what became RMIAN adopted, by necessity, what is still an exceptionally efficient approach to pro bono legal services today: A core group mobilizes the resources and goodwill of many volunteer lawyers to provide immigration law services to indigent clients who would otherwise not receive help. Simultaneously, RMIAN grew its financial support, allowing it to hire staff attorneys to provide direct representation to clients and provide critical mentoring to its volunteer attorney network.

While RMIAN started with a relatively small know-your-rights program at the Aurora immigration detention center, it now engages in cutting-edge litigation and advocacy to advance its clients' rights. RMIAN is ever working toward the goal of legal representation for 100% of individuals in immigration proceedings.

Growing RMIAN

RMIAN was still on shaky ground in the mid-to-late 1990s with only about a half-dozen or so volunteers. But then the team took on several key contributors, notably Pat Medige, at that time fresh out of law school at DU. Other members of this core group of young lawyers included Laura Lichter, Jeff Joseph, Carol Lehman, Ari Weitzhandler, and Laurie Herndon, as well as law school interns who joined when they became lawyers. Professors Norm Aaronson and Juliet Gilbert at CU, and Cecelia Espenoza at DU, were regular collaborators.

Throughout the 1990s, the Coordinating Committee organized lots of moving parts. It supervised student interns and detention center intake by pro bono attorneys from AILA, and it oversaw training programs and mentoring for Denver-area volunteer lawyers.

A key development in RMIAN's establishment occurred through the support of the American Bar Association, in the form of a mini-grant that supported fledgling pro bono programs. With the $5,000 mini-grant, the Coordinating Committee hired a part-time law student to assess the Coordinating Committee's efforts, explore the elements of effective referral models, and research various existing pro bono models...

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