In criminal courts throughout the United States, the government provides defendants who cannot afford an attorney with a free public defender. In immigration courts, which are not part of the criminal court system, immigrants who are unable to hire a private attorney and cannot find a free legal service provider are forced to face off on their own against trained government attorneys. Individuals facing deportation had no legal representation in about 44% of the cases the immigration courts ruled on in 2012 – more than 126,000 cases in one year. But a new program in a New York City immigration court could change this system – for a limited number of indigent, detained immigrants, a pilot “public defender” program is providing free representation in immigration court.
The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which kicked off last week, screens detained immigrants who will appear at the Varick Street immigration court in New York City to determine if they are unable to pay for an attorney and would like to participate in the project. Attorneys from Bronx Defenders and Brooklyn Defender Services then provide representation to participants. The New York City Council provided much of the funding for the year-long pilot. With current funding, the Project expects to be able to represent 190 immigrants over the year.
This project is the first of its kind and is an important step towards creating an immigration court system that values due process and provides fair hearings. A recent report showed that 18% of detained immigrants with attorneys avoid deportation, compared to only 3% of those who go to court on their own. The organizations behind the Project stress the importance of representation not just for the individuals facing removal, but also for their families and communities. For example, 7,000 U.S. citizen children in New York City lost a parent to deportation between 2005 and 2010. Programs like this one, which ensure that immigrants are not unfairly deported, help strengthen communities by increasing the likelihood that long-time city residents are released from immigration detention and able to return to their families. Furthermore, the program can save taxpayers and employers money. If parents return to their homes and jobs, the state will save money in foster care costs and employers will avoid employee turnover expenses. Competent legal representation can also cut costs by making immigration courts more efficient and by minimizing the time that immigrants are held in costly detention facilities.
Last week, several organizations behind the Project released a report advocating for full representation of qualifying detained immigrants at the Varick Street court, as well as other New York State and New York City area immigration courts. Immigrants facing deportation in New York City are not the only ones in need of legal help. An expanded program in New York courts and new projects in other cities or states – or better yet, a federal program to ensure all indigent, detained immigrants have access to free legal representation – could make a real difference for immigrants and communities across the country.