Nonlawyer Priest No Longer Able To Represent in Immigration Court

July 7th, 2011

The Times has a story about Father Robet Vitaglione–not a lawyer–who has represented at no cost thousands of immigrants in federal immigration courts in New York. Because of his poor representation, the Court barred him from helping immigrants:

Disheveled and disorganized, Father Vitaglione sometimes jeopardized cases with his erratic behavior, according to a federal finding. His legal briefs included a blizzard of fonts and asides — “Deportation = Death” was written in bold in one.

In May, court administrators had enough, barring Father Vitaglione from handling cases. But if anything, that only deepened the disarray. Lawyers and advocates had to hold emergency meetings to figure out how to pick up his pending cases, clean up bungled ones, and find representation for untold immigrants.

Thousands of poor immigrants swamp the system every month in the city alone, challenging deportation orders or other administrative actions, but they are not entitled to free legal representation, as they are in criminal courts. As a result, federal immigration judges, eager for respondents to have any sort of help, overlook problems with volunteers like Father Vitaglione.

The immigration courts have long allowed nonlawyers to represent clients if they can show some proficiency in the law. 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.

I am quite conflicted about this story on a number of different levels. One of the rationales for the lawyer cartel is to ensure that clients receive competent assistance (for what it’s worth, there are countless lawyers with JDs and Bar Cards who are absolutely incompetent and absurd, but I’ll put that aside for the moment). Here, we have a case of a non-lawyer providing incompetent assistance. That is bad.

Father Vitaglione was listed as the representative in 761 working cases in June 2010, according to the Board of Immigration Appeals, a workload exponentially higher than what even highly trained lawyers say they could manage.

“We’re like the Babylonian prostitutes,” he said. “We never say no.”

But as his client list grew, his work slipped. The Legal Aid Society said it filed eight complaints against him over the past five years. The Department of Homeland Security determined last year that he had mishandled at least six cases.

“We cannot excuse his failings as an accredited representative, or overlook the impact his performance has had on the low-income and indigent aliens who have relied upon his services,” the federal Board of Immigration Appeals wrote in its May 6 decision barring him from court. The board determined that Father Vitaglione had failed to appear or came unprepared to hearings in 221 cases.

Last year, according to the findings, he failed to inform a client of her hearing date, and, in her absence, the court ordered her deported.

In a case in 2009, he never showed up for a hearing, and his client, a Dominican man, was ordered deported. In another case cited by the Board of Immigration Appeals, he filed an appeal brief almost a year after the board had rendered a final decision. The scarcity of other lawyers willing to represent poor immigrants, the board wrote in May, “does not relieve Rev. Vitaglione of his responsibility to provide competent representation in each case he accepts.”

Though, the alternative is that immigrants, many of whom don’t speak English, would have to represent themselves. This leads to a far greater likelihood of deportation.

Immigrants without lawyers are more than five times as likely to lose their cases, legal advocates found in a report released in May.

How can the Bar cartel tell Father Bob that what he is doing is a net negative. There are no lawyers to take up these cases, and the Feds do not provide appointed counsel. What are the immigrants to do?

Which is worse? Someone who knows something about the system volunteering at no cost to help those in need and many do harm, or those in need, who know nothing about the legal system being thrown to the wolves? I am partial to the former.

These stories break my heart, they really do.

I mean, ask yourself what would Jesus do?

Thankfully, Father Bob tells us:

“If Jesus was here,” Father Vitaglione said, “these are the people he’d be sitting down with.”