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Amid immigration crackdown, cities step in with free legal aid

Teresa Wiltz, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Here in Judge J. Traci Hong's crammed courtroom, the jargon flows: There is talk of I-360s and I-589s, of provisional waivers and LPRs -- lawful permanent residents. Those who've come to plead their case shift in their seats, knees jittering. Some are with attorneys; others do without.

One of those doing without is Sandra Milian, a single mother of two. She's been in this country since 1999, and for the past five years, the 34-year-old cook has been staring down deportation. She wants to stay in the United States, and she's applying for asylum because she fears life back home in Guatemala is too dangerous.

As the court interpreter translates for Milian, the judge slowly lists every piece of paperwork needed: immigration forms, police reports, doctor's orders, witness testimony. "This is your last chance," Hong tells her repeatedly. "Do you understand?"

Milian will have more than two years to pull things together, but if everything isn't filled out perfectly by her next court date, in May 2020, the judge said, "I will have no choice but to deny your application. And I don't want to do it. You need to find an attorney to help you."

Because immigration proceedings are civil rather than criminal, participants don't have a right to a lawyer. But having one is a huge advantage for immigrants seeking to stay here, so as President Donald Trump's administration tightens enforcement of immigration laws, some cities and states are providing free legal assistance to immigrants facing deportation.

Many immigrants in immigration court are seeking asylum, fearing that if they are returned home, their lives will be imperiled. Others have had contact with the criminal justice system, which means they are now deportable. Some may be "detained," or held in detention facilities, while others are out on bond.

The bottom line: it is in immigration court where it is determined whether a noncitizen will get to stay in the U.S., or be forced to leave.

Increasingly immigrants seeking asylum are trying to navigate the complexities of the immigration court system without representation, from 13 percent of asylum seekers in 2007 to 20 percent in 2016, according to the TRAC Immigration Project at Syracuse University.

And just 37 percent of immigrants facing deportation have legal representation, according to a 2015 study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, which looked at 1.2 million deportation cases decided between 2007 and 2012.

Detained immigrants with legal representation were 10.5 times more likely to succeed in immigration court if they had a lawyer representing their case. And 91 percent of immigrants seeking asylum without a lawyer end up having their cases denied. With representation, asylum seekers have a five times greater chance of winning their case.

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