Civil rights groups call for funds for representation in immigration court

A coalition of more than 100 civil rights and immigrant rights groups are calling on Congress to fund legal representation for foreign nationals in immigrant detention.

In a letter to the top appropriators in the House and Senate on Monday — Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Reps. Kay Granger (R-Texas) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) — the organizations said Congress should allocate $400 million for immigrant representation.

Immigrants who are detained and put in removal proceedings currently have scant due process rights and no right to a government-appointed attorney.

“Studies have revealed that immigrants represented by legal counsel are five times more likely to obtain legal relief, while detained individuals are up to 10.5 times more likely to achieve a favorable outcome with legal representation,” wrote the groups, led by Fairness to Freedom, the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) and the Vera Institute of Justice.

“In fact, only 10 percent of people without representation in deportation proceedings initiated since 2001 have had successful case outcomes, compared to 63 percent of people with representation.”

The civil rights groups were joined in the letter by seven local governments and elected officials: Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, the Denver mayor’s office, the Chicago, Seattle and New Orleans city offices for immigrants and human rights, the city of Santa Ana, Calif., and the city clerk of North Miami, Fla.

The issue is especially important to local governments, which are often left to manage the consequences of family separations and labor losses due to deportations.

“There are 3.3 million immigrant entrepreneurs nationwide, and immigrant-led households have an estimated spending power of $1.3 trillion,” the groups wrote.

“In New York State alone, a recent report shows that providing access to attorneys for all immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the state would likely result in an additional 53,000 New Yorkers being able to remain in their communities, resulting in an estimated net benefit of at least $8.4 billion for the federal, state, and local governments.”

That economic argument is dovetailing with local governments’ push for work permits for asylum-seekers — essentially, cities are trying to ensure people remain productive.

“Legal representation for people facing deportation helps keep families together and our economy thriving. An attorney in immigration court is the difference between being imprisoned in ICE detention or being at home caring for the kids; between deportation to an unknown place or pouring into a thriving local business; between struggling to navigate the labyrinth of our outdated immigration system or having a chance to understand your rights and opportunities for relief,” said Nicole Melaku, executive director of the NPNA.

Although President Biden’s 2024 budget request included $150 million for representation, the fiscal 2025 request had no funding whatsoever for adult representation, and it directs part of a $9.3 billion hike to the refugee program to be used to help unaccompanied children “navigate complex immigration court proceedings.”

Because immigration cases are a civil rather than criminal matter, they lack a series of constitutional protections, like the right to an attorney.

Yet immigration cases often have consequences akin to criminal sentencing, and can lead to years in detention for certain undocumented immigrants, even some with no record in the criminal justice system.

“Nobody should have to stand alone when facing complicated legal proceedings that could bring about the devastating consequences of detention or deportation. Immigration proceedings are fundamentally unfair; while the government is represented every time, people who cannot afford an attorney must appear before an immigration judge alone,” said Annie Chen, director of Vera’s Advancing Universal Representation initiative.

The punitive nature of immigration enforcement is compounded by a complex system and, for some foreign nationals, language barriers.

“Despite the critical role of legal counsel, 63 percent of all people appearing in immigration court are unrepresented by counsel, and a staggering 83 percent of detained people face proceedings without counsel,” the groups wrote.

“Such unfair barriers create serious due process concerns — which are even more alarming given that many deportation cases involve life or death consequences.”

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