Under a new program slated to be introduced in 12 cities across United States, eligible immigrants who have been detained by immigration authorities will be now able to access legal aid while fighting deportation.
So far most detained immigrants have been unable get legal representation under the structure of the immigration courts.
U.S. Immigration Courts Not Part of Judiciary
Immigration courts in the U.S. do not offer the right to legal representation as they are part of the country’s executive branch and not the judiciary.
The process followed for deportation in an immigration court case contains two parts:
- First, the prosecution or the ICE attorneys need to establish that the immigrant must be removed from the country – by showing either that he lacks legal status in the U.S. or that he is guilty of doing something that allows the government to strip his legal status.
- Secondly the ICE attorneys need to show that the immigrant doesn’t qualify for immigration relief available under law
- Such relief can result in legal status being granted or some other kind of protection, but without a lawyer, immigrants struggle to understand the varying forms of relief available and whether they are eligible for them.
Immigrants typically can’t afford lawyers which means they can get legal assistance only from attorneys working pro bono or with legal aid clinic while facing a judge. These clinics have limited resources and select only a few cases that they think have the maximum chances of winning,
Federal judges have expressed concern about the current immigration court system. Judge Robert Katzmann of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals pointed out that without adequate legal representation the judges were not getting the legal record necessary to rule on.
Immigrants Receiving Legal Aid Have Better Chances Of Challenging Deportation Orders
A program initiated in 2013 has shown impact of providing legal aid to immigrants.
The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project(NYIFUP ) has provided an attorney to every immigrant in the Varick Street immigration court since 2013. By doing so, it has been able to win 24 percent of the cases fought by it in its first three years.
Research by the Vera Institute for Justice backs up the impact of legal aid. It found that up to 12 times immigrants were able to win cases in immigrant courts with lawyers – either succeeding in obtaining legal relief or succeeding in making the ICE to drop their case.
A predictive model built by it shows that 77 percent of cases still pending in immigration courts could yield wins for immigrants if a lawyer is made available.
NYIFUP Program Being Expanded To 12 Cities Nationwide
After the success of the NYIFUP program, the Vera Institute of Justice is now funding representation efforts for immigrants across 12 cities. Dubbed as the Safe Cities Network it includes New York, Baltimore, Oakland, Chicago, and Atlanta among others.
Under this program, immigrants will be able to have access to a lawyer who will fight their case in the immigration court.
Federal Government Expresses Disapproval
The federal government has however opposed such efforts to offer legal aid to immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called the lawyers appearing in immigrant courts as “dirty immigration lawyers” claiming that they drag the cases unnecessarily.
The Trump administration has asked ICE prosecutors to stop closing down immigration court cases. It has directed them to fight even the tough cases as hard as possible. This may result in immigration court cases becoming lengthier and may convince the immigrants that they have no choice except to accept the deportation.