Groundbreaking digital law project fights for refugee rights

Jason E. Kaplan
Stephen Manning, founder of the Innovation Law Lab

An innovative crowdsourced legal project played a crucial role in a recent victory for asylum seekers detained at the federal correction institution in Sheridan.

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The pro bono lawyers who flocked to the facility earlier this summer came from the Innovation Law Lab, a platform that leverages sophisticated data-driven tools for refugee rights cases. Lab attorneys are currently filing release applications for 79 men who fled violence in several countries, including India, Nepal and Guatemala. 

“It means a couple things,” says Stephen Manning, the Lab’s Portland-based founder, of the latest win. “The law matters, and representation matters.”

On a Friday morning, in his brightly colored downtown office littered with children’s drawings and door-stopping immigration law tomes, Manning didn’t look fresh off a victory. On top of his day job, the immigration attorney volunteers full-time hours for his nonprofit digital law project. Over the past year and a half the nationwide enterprise has trained 296 attorneys through its four “Centers for Excellence,” developed a “rights architecture” to standardize representation in Oregon and won cases like Sheridan through “massive collaborative representation.”

The work is more pressing than ever. Crowds of asylum seekers swell as the Trump administration ramps up deportation efforts. In fiscal year 2016, asylum officers completed 79,710 credible “fear interviews,” according to U.S. citizenship and immigration services data, and 60,566 people passed the screening. The interviews ascertain whether the applicant has a credible reason for seeking asylum.

In 2018, 86,427 people requested interviews, and 66,338 passed. 

Oregon Business first interviewed Manning as his project took flight a year and a half ago, before President Donald Trump assumed office and thrust immigration law into the forefront of the public consciousness. Now, the policies of the current administration are kicking the Law Lab’s refugee defense work into high gear. This fall Manning plans to launch a “universal representation” project, in which nonprofits sponsor pro bono attorneys, seeking to “defend everyone.” The Lab is also turning its data into a map of jurisdictions across the country that shows disparities in due process.

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Manning himself seamlessly blends tech startup jargon, constitutional law and Foucault’s theories of state discipline. He doesn’t mince words when it comes to the President and his policies — deporting asylum seekers and separating families at the border.

“We see Trump tweeting ‘no courts, no lawyers,’” Manning says. “The rule of law means all rules are applied, not just the ones we would like. You might think the Fifth amendment is an impediment to your white nationalist agenda, but it’s still the fifth amendment, and thank God.”

“We see Trump tweeting no courts, no lawyers,” Manning says. “The rule of law means all rules are applied, not just the ones we would like.”

Manning has deployed an army of pro bono lawyers on 73 cases through a sophisticated digital platform. Borrowing language and strategy from tech, he seeks “massive collaborative representation” with “dynamic adaptation” based on user feedback to “disaggregate legal services and scale them.” Basically, the software interprets what worked in the past, and illuminates a step-by-step path to victory that involves volunteers both on the ground and in remote cross-country locations.

The platform learns from every case it tracks. Contrary to popular courtroom dramas, it’s not always the charismatic orator who wins cases, but the one who files paperwork on time and consistently performs other replicable tasks. Manning’s goal is to isolate the variables in successful cases. Then get all of his attorneys to do that, all the time.

“Sheridan is an example of the client outcomes,” he says. “That’s a 100% win rate.”

So what’s the secret sauce, the key to unlocking every victory? In a word, journalism. Manning says victory favors “lawyers who are like reporters, who can ask questions, follow leads” to elicit a refugee’s story, even in a 30 minute interview surrounded by guards in a detention center.

The Innovation Law lab still faces three key obstacles: funding, geography and the billion-dollar private prison industry. Sales of the proprietary software and contributions from individuals and foundations keep the all-volunteer project running, but Manning estimates full representation for refugees across the nation would total $60 million.

That number sounds large. But it could come within reach, Manning says, “if people would think of defending democracy and the constitution in the same way we think of investing in apps. Maybe we need less Candy Crush and more Fifth Amendment.”

The law lab finds workarounds for hard-to-reach detention centers, like when it tasked Massachusetts volunteers with paperwork for an isolated facility in Cibola, New Mexico. But there’s no substitute for lawyers on the ground. Many of the centers are also privately run, Manning says, by corporations with significant resources and connections.

“Systems in the immigration space tend toward an anti-law concept because of historical thinking: ‘they’re the other, they’re different, so we can treat them differently,’” Manning says. “What Massive Collaborative Representation does is pull those systems back toward constitutional conformity.”

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