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Amid immigration crackdown, cities step in with free legal aid

Teresa Wiltz, on

Published in News & Features

"The immigrant is going up against a government lawyer, a person who knows the rules," said Dan Kesselbrenner, executive director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. "Even people with valid claims get intimidated by the process."

In April, New York became the first state to guarantee legal representation to every noncitizen who has been detained by immigration officials, allocating $10 million in fiscal 2018 for an immigrant defense fund. And in June, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, earmarked $15 million to provide assistance to noncitizens seeking legal immigration status.

Cities are taking action, too. In 2013, New York City moved to establish the country's first public defender system for immigrant detainees. This year, the City Council agreed to allocate $10 million for legal aid to immigrants facing deportation in 2018, up from $2.7 million last year.

Over the past year, Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., are among the cities that have started offering free legal aid to immigrants in danger of being deported.

But the cities' efforts aren't helping immigrants in rural areas, where the dearth of immigration attorneys is especially stark. Immigrants held in federal detention facilities are the least likely -- about 14 percent -- to have legal representation because they're more likely to be held in remote locations that are difficult to get to.

"The fact is, there is still a huge percentage of people who are facing deportation who are not being represented," Root said.

In the past, the American Bar Association has called for government-appointed attorneys to represent unaccompanied minors as well as people with mental health issues or mental disabilities in immigration court.

But in August, the group pointed to "an expected increase in detention and removal proceedings due to the current Administration's expanded enforcement priorities" and urged the federal government to create a national public defender system in immigration courts.

Immigration advocates say such legal support would significantly improve the chances that noncitizens can remain in the country legally, keep their families together, and work and pay taxes.

But advocates for limiting immigration, such as Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, say that immigration defense funds are an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.


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