From [Vox] Omar Siagha has been in the US for 52 years. He’s a legal permanent resident with three children. He’d never been to prison, he says, before he was taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention — faced with the loss of his green card for a misdemeanor.
His brother tried to seek out lawyers who could help Siagha, but all they offered, in his words, were “high numbers and no hope” — no guarantee, in other words, that they’d be able to get him out of detention for all the money they were charging.
Then he met lawyers from Brooklyn Defender Services — part of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, an effort to guarantee legal representation for detained immigrants. They demanded only one thing of him, he recalls: “Omar, you’ve got to tell us the truth.”
But Siagha’s access to a lawyer in immigration court is the exception.
There’s no right to counsel in immigration court, which is part of the executive branch rather than the judiciary. Often, an immigrant’s only shot at legal assistance before they’re marched in front of a judge is the pro bono or legal aid clinic that happens to have attorneys at that courthouse. Those clinics have such limited resources that they try to select only the cases they think have the best shot of winning — which can be extremely difficult to ascertain in a 15-minute interview.
But advocates and local governments are trying to make cases like Siagha’s the rule, not the exception. Soon, every eligible immigrant who gets detained in one of a dozen cities — including New York, Chicago, Oakland, California, and Atlanta — will have access to a lawyer to help fight their immigration court case.
The change started at Varick Street. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project started in New York City in 2013, guaranteeing access to counsel for detained immigrants.
According to a study released Thursday by the Vera Institute for Justice (which is now helping fund the representation efforts in the other cities, under the auspices of the Safe Cities Network), the results were stunning. With guaranteed legal representation, up to 12 times as many immigrants have been able to win their cases: either able to get legal relief from deportation or at least able to persuade ICE to drop the attempt to deport them this time.
So far, cities have been trying to protect their immigrant populations through inaction — refusing to help with certain federal requests. Giving immigrants lawyers, on the other hand, seemingly makes the system work better. And if it works, it could leave the Trump administration — which is already upset with the amount of time it takes to resolve an immigration court case — very frustrated indeed. (The Department of Justice, which runs immigration courts, didn’t respond to a request for comment.) [MORE]