SAN FRANCISCO – California state and local governments should provide free lawyers for detained immigrants, a broad coalition of immigration groups said today. A new study by the group, known as the California Coalition for Universal Representation, found that immigrants detained in California who have an attorney succeed in their cases more than five times as often as those who don’t.
“Without guaranteed legal counsel, detained longtime California residents and asylum seekers fleeing severe persecution cannot meaningfully exercise their right to apply for relief from deportation,” said Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, Immigration Program Director at Oakland’s Centro Legal de la Raza, a coalition member. “Forcing individuals to navigate the complex immigration system on their own violates due process.”
Antonio, a Salvadoran father of three United States citizen children was almost separated from his family because he could not pay for a lawyer. The 25-year old came to the US when he was 8 years old. Unaware that he had been ordered deported by a judge in Texas as a child, he was arrested for a misdemeanor and landed in a California detention facility where he was scheduled for imminent deportation. Luckily, the day before he was put on a plane, Antonio happened to meet an attorney from Centro Legal de la Raza who filed an emergency motion to stop his deportation and helped him obtain legal status to stay with his family.
The Coalition report, entitled California’s Due Process Crisis: Access to Legal Counsel for Detained Immigrants, shows that thousands of California children are at risk of being placed in foster care upon the detention or deportation of a parent or endure trauma with long-term health consequences, leading to poorer educational and health outcomes. Immigration-related arrests half household incomes on average, and leave many households without anyone earning wages. As a result, loved ones go hungry and struggle to remain in their homes.
Alfredo Flores, who lives with his U.S. citizen wife, daughters and granddaughter in Union City, was detained by immigration authorities for over a year, during which time his family was evicted and forced to seek public assistance for the first time in their lives because they couldn’t make ends meet without their primary breadwinner.
“Being detained sent my family into a terrible crisis,” Flores said. “There is no way I could have been released and won my case without legal representation.”
The overwhelming majority – nearly 70 percent – of detained immigrants in California go unrepresented in their deportation cases because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer, the study finds.
“The lack of counsel for immigration detainees has a huge impact on California communities causing family separation and straining city and state support networks,” said Jayashri Srikantiah, director of the Stanford Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, a member of the Coalition. The Stanford clinic published a report in 2014 that found that Northern California immigrants who are locked up during their deportation proceedings are much more likely to be able to stay with their families and communities if they have an attorney.
Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants are not entitled to court-appointed attorneys even though a deportation order can have deadly consequences for those forced to return to countries where they are threatened by drug cartels, gang or gender-based violence.
“For those who have fled sexual and gender-based violence and other trauma, discussing their past experiences may be very difficult,” said Christine Lin, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “Legal representation is crucial to ensure that they can present their testimony, are afforded fair hearings, and are not being returned to face further violence or even death in their home countries.”
State or local publicly-funded programs to represent immigrant detainees are not without precedent and make up the beginning of a national movement to provide universal representation to all detained immigrants comparable to public defender programs, the Coalition said. The California proposal follows the example of New York City, which instituted such a program beginning with a pilot in 2013 and expanding to full coverage the following year. In 2014, the City of San Francisco funded the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative (SFILDC), a unique partnership of 13 legal service providers to provide representation at the San Francisco Immigration Court to unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico.
“We’ve had extraordinary success with SFILDC,” said Avantika Shastri, the SFILDC’s Legal Director. “Our program shows that publically-funded representation of immigrants benefits everyone by not only protecting the rights of vulnerable populations, but also supporting family reunification and enriching the future of our entire community.”
The California Coalition for Universal Representation includes Centro Legal de la Raza, the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the Central American Resource Center, the California Immigrant Policy Center, the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, the Center for Popular Democracy, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the Immigrant Youth Coalition, Interfaith Communities for Peace and Justice, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the National Immigration Law Center, Pangea Legal Services, Public Counsel, the Stanford Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, and the Vera Institute of Justice.