Over 8,000 Views and Bupkis
Much to my surprise and delight, this string "AILA Governance - A Challenge", started by Bruce Hake and contributed to by yours truly and others, has now garnered well over 8,000 views by the membership in only five weeks. That's pretty impressive by anyone's standards, if for no other reason than it has generated possibly the most interest in the shortest period of time of any (non-news event, such as the Arizona boycott) posting on the Message Center in recent memory. When one considers another heavily viewed string, "A Million Dollar Profit on the Annual Conference", started by me in February of this year, had over 3,000 views within just five weeks of its initial posting, it becomes abundantly clear that there is a growing interest in how our organization is governed, including issues of transparency, finances, and priorities.
So what do 8,000 views mean to our leadership? In a word, bupkis. Has anyone from the leadership acknowledged that any of the issues raised require action? Made any commitments to address the stated concerns? Answered in detail most of the questions asked? No, no, and no.
Let's review the string in terms of questions posed.
"Please name some examples where an AILA president has accomplished something of national significance. I don't just mean good things that happened while one person was in office. I'm looking for changes actually spearheaded by the AILA president. There are probably lots of things I haven't noticed."
The initial responses from other members said the question itself was an insult (typical), that the leadership sacrifices much (never any mention of what their practices gain from it, however) and, most importantly, that AILA is a team effort and (in effect) it therefore doesn't really matter who holds the individual office of president. I'd certainly have to agree with the last point.
Bruce then offered some specific and comprehensive examples of where and how improvements could be made to the organization (see his post of October 13). The first leadership response finally comes on October 19, from Eleanor Pelta, but other than mentioning the "interesting observations that have been made" she doesn't comment at all about Bruce's points on how to restructure AILA or what the staff compensation levels are, and dances around AILA's support of amnesty as its primary advocacy effort. She later follows it up with ad hominem attacks on Bruce, and repeats the mantra "AILA leadership sacrifices so much for the good of the organization" (as an aside, I've been to India many times and there's no Hindu mantra which could compete with the number of times that phrase is repeated by the leadership, about the leadership, and for the leadership).
It was at this point that I got involved, because the constant brush-offs by the leadership to these important questions had become intolerable. I released the information about the tax returns, staff compensation, and contributions to AIC, and I requested the leadership to poll the membership as to AILA's advocacy efforts.
To my request that AILA start to post its Federal tax return on its own website, rather than making the membership go to third party sites, the answer was no.
To my (and others') request that AILA start to be more transparent about how salaries of senior staff are determined and to post the information, the answer was no. (I can't wait to see if the 2011 raises equal the outrageous amounts granted last year.)
To the issue of whether AILA would poll the membership about its advocacy efforts, the answer was no - but of course not until after the charade of asking the ExCom in a classic AILA star chamber meeting. Not one member of the leadership felt the need to poll the membership - what does that tell you? Only the Politburo used to be so unanimous. (And, by the way, how about that laughable dues renewal statement which suggests that all 11,000 members contribute an additional $50 to AIC, for a total of $550,000, on top of the roughly $300,000 that AILA gives them every year anyway?)
To the issue of having more than one person nominated for each office, the answer was no. We heard ad infinitem how AILA has elections. Well so did the Soviet Union and so do most dictatorships today. An election with only one candidate per office is not really an election, is it?
To the issue of explaining how the quarter million travel budget is expended, the answer was no. (And one wonders why the mid-winter conferences - or any AILA conference for that matter - needs to be held outside of the U.S., and how much AILA spends on transporting how many staff members to Mexico or Costa Rica each year, especially vs. the number of members attending).
To be fair, Susan Quarles did provide a partial explanation of the insider loans ("Founders Loans", how quaint), but not specifically who was asked, who refused, why the executive director was allowed to participate before other members, etc., all of which go to transparency and best practices.
On the issue that many of the leadership and staff replies always contain the theme "you're wasting our time on minutia, let's fight the battles that matter", implying that our concerns are not only unjustified but virtually irrational, the condescension is pitiful. Our most recent past president comes to mind on his posts ("we have some serious issues to contend with. Let's use our energy to fight the battles that matter" and "frankly Ken, nothing in your mean spirited MC postings over the past couple of days suggests an intent to make AILA a 'better organization'" and my personal favorite "your statements about AILA's positions, and your consistent use of the ugly language of the fringe restrictionists…") as does our executive director on hers ("sorry I was paying more attention to AILA matters, and attending to real issues like the 797s and prosecutorial discretion" and "feel free to continue to discuss, but I won't be here. I'll be doing my job."). Not exactly a display of being open to new ideas, and if these are the political skills displayed by our leadership then no wonder Capitol Hill ignores AILA.
To the issue of how the leadership and staff usually seem to notice "unprofessionalism" only when they believe it attacks them, and never when it is directed at a rank and file member, the response is silence. On November 2 a member and recipient of an AILA award posted "as this thread lives on, I just hope it would 'get professional' and stay that way" followed by this post specifically directed to me on November 12 "I can't imagine how many hours you have spent on both your backgrounders and attention to this message thread in the last month or so. Perhaps you have a diligent staff supplementing your efforts. Some surely appreciate and commend you on your focus to improve AILA, even though others may be puzzled by the timing of your advocacy work in light of the length of your membership - better late than never, right? While others bother with volunteering for leadership positions within their chapters, communicating with their chapter leadership or directly with AILA leadership, or otherwise making efforts to participate in annual membership meetings, your efforts seem novel. I look forward to observing your continued individual efforts." While a couple of members came to my defense, the silence from the AILA leadership was deafening. Clearly only by striving to become a member of the leadership of AILA can our life be full of purpose; other contributions don't count.
And speaking of the leadership, how about everyone stops talking about the "sacrifices" they make? These are not people working in dangerous locations like Doctors without Borders, and there are quite a few tangible and intangible benefits that come with being able to say that one is an officer with AILA. I don't see anyone not highlighting that fact on their website, and we all know it benefits one's practice. It cheapens the word when one making the sacrifice has to inform others of the fact. These are people with healthy egos, like me and virtually any attorney, and they were not coerced into these positions; in fact, they seek them out quite actively because they feel they can contribute more to the profession, the organization, the "cause" (whether amnesty or justice in general) better than most. No doubt many Members of Congress also feel they are making a sacrifice, but as with leadership slots in AILA there is never any shortage of applicants for the position. Arguendo, I will concede that AILA's leaders are all great people, both personally and professionally, but that's not what this discussion is about. It's about issues and the structure, operation, and fossilization of AILA's leadership, not the individual temporary officeholders who comprise same.
So there you have it. 8,000 views and nothing has changed --- no consideration to the many calls for a restructuring, no commitment to transparency, no polling of the membership on advocacy issues and efforts, and a realization that whoever is AILA's president is irrelevant, because it's a one year figurehead position which doesn't call the shots. As I said, bupkis.
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.