Wilkinson Stekloff Wins Landmark Immigration Appeal

Washington, D.C. — Wilkinson Stekloff associates Chanakya Sethi and Alison Zoschak have secured a major pro bono win in the Ninth Circuit, convincing the court that non-citizens facing reinstatement of prior deportation orders have a right to counsel in their removal proceedings. Chan was appointed to represent Walter Orozco-Lopez as a member of the Ninth Circuit’s pro bono panel and argued the case in April 2021.

The precedential decision could affect thousands of individuals in the Ninth Circuit each year. The federal government has for the last decade deported upwards of 100,000 people annually under an expedited procedure that allows for reinstatement of earlier deportation orders. Unlike non-citizens in ordinary removal proceedings, these individuals have been denied the right to an attorney when they have challenged their deportation on the grounds that they fear return to their native countries.

Chan and Alison argued that the Immigration and Nationality Act codifies a right to counsel for non-citizens in any kind of removal proceeding, including the so-called “reasonable fear hearings” at issue in Mr. Orozco-Lopez’s case. The Ninth Circuit agreed, holding that “non-citizens whose removal orders have been reinstated are statutorily entitled to counsel … at no expense to the government, at their reasonable fear hearings before an [immigration judge].” Because the immigration judge in Mr. Orozco-Lopez’s case never told him he had a right to an attorney, the Ninth Circuit remanded his case for a new hearing, where his right to counsel will be honored.

“We are thrilled with the court’s opinion,” said Wilkinson Stekloff associate Chan Sethi. “The assistance of a lawyer can make all the difference in removal proceedings. This decision means that our client will have an opportunity to explain his case with the help of his attorney, and it sets an important precedent for others who now have an assurance that their right to counsel will be protected.”

In addition to Chan and Alison, the Wilkinson Stekloff team on Mr. Orozco-Lopez’s case included partner James Rosenthal and case manager Sharon Schwei.

Wilkinson Stekloff has demonstrated its commitment to pro bono work across practice areas including family law, civil rights, post-conviction representation, and appellate matters:

  • In 2020, the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (LACLJ) recognized Wilkinson Stekloff as its Pro Bono Partner of the Year, noting that the firm’s pro bono advocacy on behalf of low-income women experiencing domestic violence “has been vital to these individual clients and has brought safety and security to them and their children.”
  • Joining forces with the ACLU of Missouri and the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the firm represented a class of incarcerated people challenging the Missouri Department of Corrections’ and their private healthcare provider Corizon’s systematic denial of potentially life-saving medications, ultimately leading to a landmark settlement in August 2020, under which Missouri will dedicate $50 million to Hepatitis C treatment.
  • Wilkinson Stekloff secured the release of two clients under DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (known as “IRAA”), which allows those sentenced as juveniles to petition a court for resentencing after they have served at least 15 years of their sentence. 
  • In an appellate case, working in partnership with Rights Behind Bars, a non-profit organization dedicated to the rights of incarcerated people, the firm represented a client who was attacked while in detention in an Alabama jail. The Eleventh Circuit ruled for our client, determining that the county sheriff and jail warden had violated his constitutional rights and were not entitled to qualified immunity.