Interview with National Immigration Project Director Dan Kesselbrenner

Azadeh Shahshahani

In light of the major federal immigration reforms proposed this winter, NLG President Azadeh Shahshahani sat down with Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG), to talk about their implications and the work and history of the project.

Azadeh Shahshahani: What would the National Immigration Project like to see in an immigration reform proposal?

Dan Kesselbrenner: We would like to see the proposals include a path to legalization, prioritize keeping families together, demilitarize the borders, protect the labor rights of all workers including the right to organize, increase visas for people from all countries, and allow residence petitions regardless of marital status.

What we’d like to see excluded are: disproportionate punishments for minor past convictions, deportations without due process, mass deportation programs, mandatory detention, universal ID cards, and new databases. 

AS: What needs to happen for us to get there? Do you think we’ll get there this year?

DK: Congress is not going to enact NIPNLG’s goals any time soon. We have to engage in the difficult process of changing the frame of the debate, which currently puts the emphasis on enforcement as a trade off for a pathway to citizenship. We need to counter divisions that dilute the strength of our communities.

There is a general fear that a compromise would pit people who receive benefits under a new program against others who are kept out and for whom the law becomes even harsher. The group most often thrown under the bus in reform negotiations tend to be those who have had brushes with the criminal justice system. We have to counter this through organizing and principled unity.

AS: Do you think that the dialogue on immigration in this country has evolved in the past several decades?

DK: Yes. I have been involved in this work for three decades. During that time I have seen a lot change for the better. The right to be told about immigration consequences of criminal pleas was unheard of when I started working and now even the Supreme Court has recognized that right. Same-sex couples being eligible for benefits was unheard of and now it is within reach. When I started, there was a bar on HIV-positive individuals getting visas. Ideological exclusion was exercised on a wider scale then, too.  Today there is greater acceptance of the positive role of immigrants, though there are obviously ebbs and flows.

On the other hand, state and local laws like what we have seen in Arizona and Georgia are worse than what they were decades ago. We are hopeful that those voices are becoming outliers as more and more people realize that our strength as a nation lies in our diversity.

AS: Could you tell us about other areas of NIPNLG work?

DK: Collaboration with other parts of the Guild has increased in the past few years. We have held joint trainings with the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP), which is also a project of the NLG. We have had mutual mentoring programs for attorneys. Given the amount of abuse against non-citizens by immigration and local police, we want to help attorneys who are immigration practitioners realize that they can help hold the government accountable and even obtain a financial recovery for their clients. We also want to help civil rights attorneys feel more comfortable with special concerns that non-citizen plaintiffs might have.

NIPNLG itself has held the government accountable on a number of occasions. We were the lead plaintiff in a FOIA action that resulted in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Solicitor General revealing that DHS made a misrepresentation to the Supreme Court in claiming a policy to bring people back to the U.S. who had been erroneously deported.  Practitioners had never heard of that policy. The case, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild v. the Department of Homeland Security, is still pending.

We are very involved in working with DREAMer defense work. We started this work before the administration’s Deferred Action program was implemented in 2012.

We have responded to discriminatory treatment against Muslim Americans throughout the immigration process, whether it be applying for benefits or visas, obtaining bond, fighting selective prosecution, or challenging biased evidence evaluation.

We have responded to the increasing interrelation between the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems by developing a toolkit on detainers and a deportation defense seminar and by collaborating with both legal practitioners and community organizations.

We also routinely respond to letters from immigrants in detention and, as a result, have built up our jailhouse lawyer membership. Our jailhouse lawyer members often have strong cases and many have won with our support.   

AS: Would you provide us with a snapshot of NIPNLG’s history? When and how did the project start?

DK: The project started in 1971. We celebrated our 40th anniversary at the 2011 NLG Convention. It came out of the Los Angeles immigration committee of the Guild. The idea was that national project would provide a way to coordinate work and to share ideas and strategize. There were 18 people at the first meeting and now we have about a thousand members. We try to provide both technical excellence and principled politics.

Racism and xenophobia are not new. Attacking immigrant workers is not new. We try to continue the path begun by Carol King and the many other pioneers in protecting immigrants’ human rights. We try to move people to see the connections between immigration and U.S. foreign policy and the role of race, sex, and gender discrimination in enforcement.

AS: When did you join NIPNLG and why did you start doing this work?

DK: I joined the project in 1986. Before that, I was co-director of a Central American refugee organization. And previous to that, I was involved in a local community-based immigrants' right group, the Committee Against Deportations. Growing up in New York City, I was very much exposed to the immigrant experience. My parents fled the Nazis who killed my father’s parents during the Holocaust.  

In the 1980s, people were fleeing the U.S.-backed military regimes throughout Central America and there was discrimination in who got asylum. Those who fled U.S. allies in Central America rarely got asylum so the Guild brought a class action along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU called American Baptist Church v. Thornburg, which highlighted the connections between U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy.

At first, we brought the case as a symbolic effort to increase awareness and promote greater political understanding of the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and immigration, but the government ended up settling in 1991. As a result, 500,000 Salvadorans and Guatemalans got residence. To this day, I can't believe that it actually happened. It was very exciting to be part of something that successfully challenged the government and made a difference in so many people’s lives. 

AS: How do you think NIPNLG's current work and history fit into the larger mission of the NLG?

DK: Immigrants' rights work has been part of the NLG since the organization was founded. Our work overlaps with other projects and committees of the Guild. There is much overlap with the International Committee, the Queer Caucus, NPAP, and the Anti-Racism Committee. The fight for human dignity in the face of government oppression is one struggle with many fronts.