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Amid immigration crackdown, cities step in with free legal aid

Teresa Wiltz, on

Published in News & Features

"It's hard for me to see what the public interest is in prolonging the deportation process," Vaughan said. "They don't have to go to immigration court. They can go home."

The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project launched in 2013 as a pilot project with a $500,000 grant from the New York City Council. Four attorneys in one New York City courtroom provided free legal services to close to 200 indigent detainees. All were facing deportation and were being held at county jails. The program was expanded the following year and by 2016, it had represented 1,772 people in deportation proceedings.

And cities such as Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles have used it as a model to create similar projects.

When noncitizens have representation, their cases sometimes can be resolved more quickly, said Sarah Deri Oshiro of the Bronx Defenders, one of the original lawyers on the New York project. And the lawyers made sure to not give false hope to people who weren't eligible to remain in the United States, she said.

"People were told straight away, 'Accept deportation,'" she said. "We saw this as humanitarian."

Today, in the wake of Trump's crackdown on immigration, there's a push among immigration advocates in the private sector to train the next generation of immigration attorneys. For example, the Immigration Justice Campaign this year has signed up 1,000 pro bono attorneys around the country with no immigration experience, said Katie Shepherd, a lawyer at the American Immigration Council, which advocates for the legal rights of immigrants.


The lawyers will provide mentorship, training and technical assistance to fight and win immigration cases, she said.

"We're hoping to connect detainees with winning cases with pro bono attorneys who can get them across the finish line," Shepherd said.

At the U.S. Immigration Court in Arlington, judges juggle missing paperwork -- and missing attorneys.

In one courtroom, a Jamaican immigrant facing deportation tells the judge that her lawyer is based in Florida. So the judge conducts the hearing with the lawyer on speakerphone. The lawyer promises he'll be in town for the next court date, set for 2019. In another courtroom, a woman tells the judge that she's on her own today, because her attorney texted her to say that she'd had a family tragedy.


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