Amid the swirl of the national immigration debate, Stephen Manning JD ’01 combines technology and litigation to fight for asylum seekers.
Stephen Manning’s work has once again landed him a front-row seat in the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Portland —and a prominent role in the drama of immigration politics.
Today, his nonprofit, the Innovation Law Lab, is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over access to dozens of asylum seekers held at a federal correctional institution in Sheridan, Oregon, 60 miles south of Portland.
One hundred twenty-three men, many of them Sikhs from eastern India fleeing religious and political persecution, were sent to Sheridan after being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in May. Officials at the prison and at U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement initially denied visit requests by both Manning’s Law Lab and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.
The ACLU sued on the Law Lab’s behalf, and on June 25 won a temporary restraining order that granted access. Over the following six weeks, staff and volunteers presented “Know Your Rights” workshops in 12 languages, took on pro bono representation of 80 of the men, and prepped their clients for an initial asylum screening.
We’re trying to provide legal representation to the most vulnerable people in this country—on a massive scale—to take down this huge apparatus of mass incarceration that’s been constructed.” Stephen Manning JD ’01
The work of Manning’s team paid off. Following the asylum screenings, a U.S. official concluded that each detainee did, in fact, have a “credible fear” of torture or persecution if they returned to their home country. The immigrants will not be deported unless a judge denies their asylum claim. The next step for Manning and his team is to try to free their clients from detention as they await their full asylum hearing, which could be several years away. To achieve that goal, they will need continued access to their clients—and that’s why they are back in court today.
“The Constitution says everyone deserves legal representation, so their case can be won or lost on the merits,” says Manning. “We’re trying to provide that representation to the most vulnerable people in this country—on a massive scale—to take down this huge apparatus of mass incarceration that’s been constructed.”
Journey to Advocacy
Manning didn’t take a traditional path to lawyering. After graduating from Gannon University near his hometown of Bradford, Pennsylvania, he headed west with notions of a career in social services. He found work in Portland as a counselor at a teen shelter. But it was his volunteer work as a tutor for students whose parents were undocumented that piqued his interest in the complexities of immigration law. He became an immigration caseworker—someone credentialed to represent people in immigration court—and saw firsthand a system that he recalls as “out of control.”
“Portland was known as ‘Deportland’ at the time,” he says. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do to get action. I thought the government needed to be sued.”
To do that, Manning needed a JD, which he earned over four years in the law school’s evening program while continuing to work full time. “Even though I was very focused on immigration law, I enjoyed taking courses on a wide range of topics, like administrative law and constitutional law. These courses centered on the ‘whys’ of the law. That’s been really foundational for me.”
After graduation, Manning opened up a small immigration law firm with a former classmate, Jessica Boell. They added a third lawyer, Jennifer Rotman, a year later. The trio still run the firm, known as the Immigrant Law Group, today.
From the very beginning, they not only took on more run-of-the-mill cases—fighting deportation orders, filing asylum claims, obtaining green cards and bringing family members to the U.S.—but began filing “impact litigation” against the government to force policy changes benefiting immigrants. In its first four years, the firm filed 30 suits in federal district court and appealed another 30 immigration-board decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals. They lost only four.
“Stephen is pretty special,” says Chanpone Sinlapasai JD ’02, a Portland attorney who specializes in defending victims of human trafficking and, along with Manning, is among the city’s most active members of the immigration law community. “He dreams big and is very methodical in how he implements his vision to protect everyone’s constitutional rights and challenge our broken immigration system.”
Detention in the Desert
Manning’s work took a new turn in June 2014. That summer, a wave of violence in the northern triangle of Central America sent a stream of would-be refugees to the U.S.-Mexico border. Word spread among immigration lawyers of a secret detention center in Artesia, a remote town in the New Mexico desert, where hundreds of women and children were being held in metal trailers surrounded by barbed wire.
Manning organized a dozen Portland lawyers, advocates, and other volunteers to fly down and investigate. The local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association provided financial support.
“When we showed up, there was no legal infrastructure there—none,” recalls Philip Smith, a Portland immigration attorney. Three volunteer lawyers were operating out of the front half of a double-wide trailer, attempting to represent as many of the hundreds of women and children being held at the facility as possible.
“We had to fight at every turn—to get in to see people, to take in pens and papers, to set up a system where we could help prepare people to meet with an asylum officer,” says Smith.
An Outlet for Student Activism
Stephen Manning’s groundbreaking advocacy work has created opportunities for Lewis & Clark law students to play a hands-on role in the country’s unfolding human rights drama surrounding immigrant detention.
Manning has been an adjunct professor of law since 2010, when Juliet Stumpf, Robert E. Jones Professor of Advocacy and Ethics, hired him to teach an immigration law survey course during her sabbatical.
“He had so many ideas on how the law school could be closer to the immigration law community and how to bring law students into immigrant advocacy,” recalls Stumpf. “It was exactly what I had been wanting to do, so we started to carve a pathway to make it happen.”
Since 2014, she and Manning have co-led a seminar called Transformative Immigration Law, which Stumpf says is designed to “teach students not just the traditional lawyer tools—how to analyze, evaluate, and litigate—but also to understand what causes the law to change, including the role of advocates.”
In summer 2015, three students from the course joined Manning and four Chicago-based lawyers on a trip to Dilley, Texas, where they counseled detained immigrants in a 2,400-person detention facility.
“It impacted me in a lot of ways,” says Rodrigo Juarez JD ’16, one of the students on the trip and now a staff lawyer for the nonprofit Immigration Counseling Service in Hood River. “‘It shook me awake’ is a good way to put it.”
When he returned to school, Juarez and two classmates, Juliann Peebles JD ’16 and George McDonald JD ’16, cofounded the Immigration Student Group, which has since provided financial and organizational support to help more than 40 students make the trek to Dilley.
Beginning with that very first group, Manning says the contributions of Lewis & Clark law students to the work in Dilley have been “phenomenal.” On the ground, they’re able to perform all the same duties as practicing attorneys except represent a detainee before an immigration judge.
“Stephen wants students to not just think about how to be good lawyers, but how to create advocacy structures that are effective,” says Stumpf. “He wants them to understand how to organize people inside and outside the legal field to be advocates for law that works and works well.”
Even though several Obama administration officials were on record saying they wanted to deport arrivals as quickly as possible so as to dissuade more from coming— a clear subversion of the asylum process—Manning says, “There was nothing we could do about it because the power asymmetry was so great: The number of lawyers and advocates was so small compared to the number of refugees.”
“Using the traditional pro bono model, the project would have needed 500 lawyers,” he continues. “We didn’t have that. And we didn’t have any time. I realized that if we were going to save even one life, we would have to do something radically different.”
Within days, Manning directed his office staff to release a “very early prototype” of software that was being designed to manage the firm’s caseload. The idea was to transform the platform to become the centralized information clearinghouse and document repository the project needed to succeed. “We went from all these different Excel sheets to a tool that would enable us to track and manage cases,” says Manning.
The database allowed critical information to be passed among an ever-changing coterie of volunteer lawyers. It enabled the volunteers to not only track individual cases but also get a broader status report, which helped them aggregate tasks and determine where to prioritize resources. Crucially, it permitted remote teams of lawyers to contribute meaningfully to the project, accessing the information they needed to investigate cases and draft bond motions.
Manning’s law firm staff became the software’s help desk: making training videos; answering calls from users; and prioritizing new features or tweaks to meet on-the-ground needs.
The results were immediate and significant: Within a month, the pace of removals fell 80 percent; within two months, it had fallen 97 percent. Detainees were winning virtually all their credible-fear screenings.
An Evolving Product
This newly developed software became the heart of Manning’s Innovation Law Lab nonprofit. Although Manning says the Law Lab existed “as a concept” before Artesia, it found life in the New Mexico desert. He developed the Law Lab to address this central challenge: How can volunteer lawyers effectively represent dozens—or even hundreds—of detained asylum seekers who, without representation and due process, face the likelihood of being deported without regard to the merits of their claims?
The Law Lab’s software is essentially a client-management database that centralizes all case notes, documents, and schedules in one place. The database, in effect, allows users to “crowdsource” their legal work. Every case entered into the software is broken down into a sequence of actions, which can be created and assigned by users or set up to trigger automatically. Divvying up the case into discrete steps lets volunteer lawyers and others plug into the system remotely and contribute meaningfully in whatever time they can spare—what Manning calls “massive collaborative representation.”
The Law Lab software is now used in dozens of efforts to free noncitizen detainees, including at two large detention centers in Texas and another in Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s also being deployed to assist lawyers in four immigration court jurisdictions that are notorious for rejecting asylum petitions. More than 80 private immigration law firms pay a monthly fee to use the software to manage their own caseloads.
Manning’s pioneering product has won him a distinguished “Founders Award” from the American Immigration Lawyers Association; been adopted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a noted civil rights group based in Montgomery, Alabama; and prompted the Financial Times to bestow upon Manning its “2017 legal innovator award for North America,” based on his originality, leadership, and impact.
“Stephen is somebody in our field who’s a couple of steps ahead of everyone else,” says Philip Smith. “Starting from a few volunteer attorneys, Stephen was able to imagine a system where hundreds of attorneys could combine their expertise to represent large numbers of people, and he developed an infrastructure to make that happen.”
The Latest Front: Sheridan
Back in the U.S. District Courthouse in Portland, site of the temporary injunction hearing on the Sheridan detainees, Manning listens attentively to the proceedings from his front-row seat.
Nadia Dahab of Stoll Berne, who argues the case on the Law Lab’s behalf, addresses the judge: “This case is about the defendant’s decision to deny Law Lab access to its clients and to deny those clients access to counsel.”
A government lawyer counters that the Law Lab lacks legal standing, that the detainees are not legally guaranteed a right to counsel, and that the visitations put an undue burden on prison officials.
After a brief recess, the judge decides in Manning’s favor, issuing an injunction that requires Law Lab staff be allowed to consult with their clients seven days a week during a six-hour window. He orders progress-check meetings with both sides every two weeks. After the hearing, Manning smiles and congratulates his lawyers. “
It’s an important victory,” he says. “Part of our strategy is that every person matters, every site of mass incarceration matters. The rule of law matters.”
Dan Sadowsky is a filmmaker and writer based in Portland.