In recent weeks, the Trump administration has intensified its assault on immigrant rights with several new moves to limit access to counsel.
Immigration Court is already a starkly unbalanced system where mostly unrepresented non-citizens — many non-English speakers who may lack formal education — are expected to present their own deportation defenses against trained Department of Homeland Security prosecutors. A prominent immigration judge has referred to deportation proceedings as “death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”
The stakes in immigration court are especially high and the chances of finding a lawyer are especially low for detained non-citizens, a population that comprises recently arrived asylum seekers as well as long-term U.S. residents including lawful permanent residents. In fiscal year 2018, representation rates nationally for detained individuals were just under 35%, with local rates even lower (29.4%).
The California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (CCIJ) is a coalition of pro bono legal services providers serving non-citizens detained in the San Francisco Immigration Court jurisdiction — an area that spans from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. Detained non-citizens are particularly vulnerable due to economic and geographic obstacles and low representation rates. Limited-scope legal services provided by CCIJ — including consultations, advocacy in court and referrals to pro bono attorneys — are often the only legal assistance local detained non-citizens receive during the entirety of their detention and deportation.
Recent changes by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (“EOIR”), the Department of Justice branch that houses the immigration courts, are further limiting opportunities for detained non-citizens to access legal assistance.
For example, a policy memo published late last month has levied new limits on the ability of pro bono attorneys to serve as “friends of the court” in immigration court.
Pro bono “friends of the court” provide a lifeline to detained non-citizens from Northern California, offering free consultations and answering questions, helping to raise legal challenges or questions before the judge, and providing follow-up assistance to detainees and their families. These consultations connect detainees with additional legal resources and sometimes even long-term representation.
The new policy limiting “friends of the court” purports to protect non-citizens but in reality, it leaves unrepresented non-citizens detained locally more vulnerable — without access to a cadre of experienced, vetted and free attorneys.
By KATHLEEN KAVANAGH and VALERIE ANNE ZUKIN for THE MERCURY NEWS
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