An Open Letter to AILA Members
Dear AILA Members,
As the followers of AILA's InfoNet Message Center and readership of Immigration Daily know, there is a growing controversy over the governance of AILA, the lack of responsiveness of the leadership to members' concerns, and questions about how our dues are spent. Frankly, most members don't seem to care about the first two issues, but virtually everyone shows an interest in the money.
I have now looked at AILA's tax returns for 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2010. (I wasn't able to find 2008 online for free.) What I found is disheartening.
Interested persons already know about the bloated salaries received by AILA's top four staffers, but that's not the end of it. AILA's leadership spends our dues monies in ways that are not clearly identified ahead of time to, or open to debate by, the general membership, nor likely to be condoned if they were. Allow me to elaborate using just two examples: contributions made by AILA to other organizations, and the borrowing of money from a select small group of members and the then Executive Director of AILA, Jeanne Butterfield, in what can certainly be perceived as a potential conflict of interest.
Look at the following chart. The first column is the donation AILA made to the American Immigration Council (AIC) or its predecessor, the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF). The second column shows the total amount of money given away by AILA to all organizations that particular year. The third column displays the amount of money given away by AILA as a percentage of the membership dues collected that same year.
*2008 figures are estimates
So over the past five years AILA has given away $1.753 million - representing nearly 9% of the dues we must pay every year -- towards groups and causes which the membership has no true real-time say in. What makes this even worse is that AILA consistently prods the membership to donate even more to the AIC every year, despite this de facto involuntary annual contribution. And before people shout that it's for a worthy cause, I hope they consider such tidbits like 2006, when AILA gave $2,000 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most retrogressive organizations there is, one which opposes virtually everything that the average AILA member would support, such as environmental and work safety regulations, and a reduction in tax loopholes for multinationals. The idea that a portion of my dues involuntarily goes to such a conservative and uncaring organization - an organization that truly opposes the 99% that are now out in the streets - speaks volumes. During my years on the Hill I saw what the Chamber stood for, and its positions were as predictable as AILA's, though without any regard to the common worker. See which candidates the Chamber donates to every year, and see if you want your dues money passed along to them. I certainly don't.
The other item goes back to 1999 (and one transaction in 2000), again using information gleaned from the Federal tax return (Form 990). In that year AILA borrowed the following sums from the following members on ten year notes, all at 8% interest with principal and interest payable at maturity, for "headquarters building improvements":
Douglas Bristol $50,000
There was also one other lender of $50,000 --- Jeanne Butterfield, who was AILA's Executive Director at the time.
I don't recall there being a widespread discussion (to wit, other than within the ExCom or BoG) at the time of AILA going to members for loans, rather than a bank, although if I were given the opportunity to lock in an 8% return on my investment for ten years I probably would have jumped at the chance. From the lenders' perspective it was probably a good deal, but I'm not so sure it was for AILA, both financially and politically. How was the decision to secure financing in this way made, and who got to decide who the lenders would be? Was the general membership consulted, or told the names of the lenders other than in the (not expected to be read and after the fact anyway) tax returns? And if we didn't have the money, and/or our credit lines were tapped out, then maybe we shouldn't be giving away so much of our revenues to other organizations?
More importantly, why in the world was the Executive Director involved in this? It's bad enough that AILA has no conflict of interest policy, but this financial transaction alone should demonstrate the need for one. Although as we now know AILA's top staffer earns enough compensation to even act as a bank to the organization, how wise is it for the organization to put itself in this position? This is just one more example of why calls for the restructuring of the ExCom and Board of Governors needs to be undertaken, and for the membership to get off its collective duff and pressure the leadership to be more responsive to what members want, transparent in their actions, and prudent with our money.
Our dues are unnecessarily high, in great part because they are given to advocacy causes without the general membership being asked what we support, and all the leadership ever says in response is "Trust us, everything is great. We know better than you. Now how about another Kool-Aid?"
Just because the leadership doesn't want to poll the membership about advocacy efforts or solicit an open debate about governance, doesn't mean we must accept it. Why did you join AILA? Was it to help you with your practice or to make a political statement by joining what has become a lobbying organization? Do you think AILA has scored legislative victories on Capitol Hill, or has squandered its objectivity and credibility by opposing any efforts at any enforcement of our immigration laws? Are our revenues spent wisely and transparently? Are you comfortable with an organization which only ever nominates one candidate per office, thus making elections relatively moot? In short, do you believe that simply because this is how things are, that they must always remain so? Or do you think that maybe it's time for the leadership to solicit our views, and to stop trying to deflect every legitimate concern with a plea to amend the by-laws (as easy as amending the U.S. Constitution), attend a Board of Governors meeting (as effective as watching a session of Congress from the visitors' gallery), or run for office (better governance should be implemented regardless of who's in office). Neither the exchange of information nor good governance should rely primarily upon a line in the by-laws or a speech at a BoG meeting, and it certainly shouldn't depend upon the good graces of those who hold the trust of office. It should be part of the philosophy of an organization, followed by both its leaders and staff, one which recognizes the merits of having a loyal opposition and gladly solicits its input on all major matters. AILA has become a self-aggrandizing bureaucracy, no different than the government agencies it constantly rails against, and much of the membership feels that it has no say in anything of substance anymore. Let our president know how you feel. Send an email to Eleanor Pelta at email@example.com, and feel free to copy me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenneth Rinzler is an immigration lawyer in Washington, DC, and a frequent visitor to consular posts, having now traveled to 40 countries. A graduate of Georgetown University and Seton Hall University School of Law, he is a member of the District of Columbia, Indiana, New Jersey, and U.S. Supreme Court Bars. In addition to authoring articles for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), he has written on immigration law for the German American Chamber of Commerce. Before specializing in immigration law, he spent nearly ten years working as a legislative assistant and counsel to a U.S. Congressman, and thus has an intimate knowledge of Federal legislative and administrative procedures.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.