Bridging the Gap: AI Screening for Immigrant Justice

KELSEY MCGONIGLE—In 2020, DoNotPay, the “world’s first robot lawyer” won the ABA Brown Award for Legal Access, honoring its “commitment to increasing legal services to those of modest means.” The organization made headlines again in January of 2023 with plans to bring artificial intelligence (“AI”) into the courtroom.  In the upcoming proceedings, two defendants were set to argue speeding ticket cases by repeating AI-generated instructions transmitted through Bluetooth headphones. After news broke, DoNotPay’s founder, Josh Browder, abandoned the attempts after multiple threats of criminal charges. While the ethics of DoNotPay’s proposed use of AI in the courtroom are certainly debatable, the founder’s ultimate goal to “democratize legal representation” by harnessing the power of AI technology is both admirable and practical. 

AI is internationally recognized as a tool that can be harnessed to improve society. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”) recently created an online course discussing AI’s potential for social good and the promotion of human rights in the judicial system. The course also cautions against biased data input or programming, recognizing historic bias in the judicial system and the tendency to believe technology is scientific and impartial. If “anchored in values based on human rights and sustainable development,” however, AI can serve to advance UN Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”). One key area affecting human rights is immigration law, where humanity is often secondary to documentation and judicial protection leaves much to be desired. 

Access to legal representation is critical in immigration court. Represented individuals are ten times more likely to win their cases and seven times more likely to be released from detention. Though deportation carries severe consequences for immigrants, immigration proceedings are classified as civil. This classification means that the 6thAmendment right to counsel does not apply, and the right to legal representation is considered a privilege. The Immigration and Nationality Act, as codified in U.S.C. 1229(b)(2) does require the provision of “lists … of persons who have indicated their availability to represent pro bono aliens” for all immigrants in deportation proceedings. To meaningfully fulfill this duty, immigrants should also both understand the gravity of a lack of representation and be given ways to guarantee access to these persons. 

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”), an organization established to promote justice in immigration law and policy, has long been committed to ensuring representation for all indigent persons. Among its recommendations for expanding and implementing immigration legal representation programs, AILA emphasizes the need to “partner with and maximize the utilization of all available legal service providers.” Using AI to screen immigrants in deportation proceedings and connect them with providers could be that unifying force. DoNotPay’s CEO and founder, Joshua Browder, noted the law’s combination of code and language makes it a “perfect use case for AI.” AI is “powerful” and people “deserve to use that to help themselves,” especially those lacking resources or knowledge whose lives are at stake as they navigate evolving immigration policies. An interactive AI survey, with a guarantee of confidentiality, could help identify statutory bars to relief, confirm upcoming court appearances, run criminal background checks, educate immigrants on their legal options, and connect them with legal providers based on the facts of their case.  Potential clients could then be directed to information sheets detailing the necessary legal requirements, forms, and procedures for potential categories of relief. Clients could also be given the option to either send their survey responses directly to nonprofit organizations/pro bono volunteers in their jurisdiction or to receive the contact information for an entity they could reach out to themselves. Because many forms of relief are applicable at the discretion of immigration judges, the malleable arguments are best presented by human advocates. But AI can streamline an incredibly complex and intimidating process by narrowing the focus—eliminating null pathways and providing a basic understanding of those pathways that do apply. It can also bridge the gap between unrepresented immigrants and the organizations determined to fight for their rights. As DoNotPay seeks to pivot away from the courtroom, partnership with immigrant rights organizations is an option that aligns with its central mission to “make legal information and self-help accessible to everyone.”