Immigrants who have been in the US for decades are being tossed into courtrooms without lawyers because of a glaring loophole in our justice system — it's time they get a fair hearing

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The first 100 days of the Biden Administration have seen record numbers of immigrants arriving at the US-Mexico border, with Border Patrol encountering almost 180,000 immigrants in the month of April alone — a 15-year high. But with the focus on the crisis at the border, we’ve overlooked the ongoing immigration crisis in our backyards. Community members are still facing detention and are at risk of deportation and permanent separation from their families as a result of years of anti-immigrant federal policies — including Marco Munoz Quiroz, who has lived in the US for decades, and whose entire family are US citizens.

Quiroz could not afford an attorney after he was arrested at his home in Southern California in January. If he had been facing criminal charges, the government would have provided a public defender to protect his rights. But because he stood accused of civil immigration violations, he was not guaranteed legal defense. He spent more than a month fearing deportation and worrying about his health at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, a facility he described as unbearably cold.

While the Biden Administration has taken some initial steps toward reversing the aggressively anti-immigrant agenda of the prior administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and federal immigration authorities have continued to target immigrant communities, book people into detention, and tear apart families. Even after the Biden Administration made changes to ICE enforcement policies, Quiroz and others with long histories of peaceful life in America are still being ensnared.

As a result, some immigrants endure detention for weeks, months, or even years, often under inhumane and deadly conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. As of May 2021, ICE confirmed that more than 14,000 people had tested positive for COVID-19 at 133 different facilities, and the Vera Institute of Justice’s research demonstrates that the actual number of infections in ICE detention is far higher.

The majority of immigrants facing deportation, including 70% of those in detention, lack an attorney, leaving them to navigate a complex and unjust system without legal defense.

Fortunately, Quiroz lives in one of a growing number of places where state and local governments have set up public defender-style systems to ensure that no one faces deportation without a lawyer simply because they cannot afford one. As a result, an experienced removal defense immigration attorney from the Oakland-based nonprofit Immigrant Legal Defense (ILD) provided Quiroz with legal representation. ILD also partnered with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice on a public campaign resulting in daily phone calls to ICE and immigration authorities from Quiroz’s family, community members, and immigrant rights supporters demanding Quiroz be released from detention. More than one month later, ICE released Quiroz home to his family. Since then, the immigration judge terminated Quiroz’s deportation proceedings and he is no longer at risk of being deported.

Immigrants need guaranteed legal defense

We need action at all levels of government. The Biden administration can build a federally-funded, universal legal defense service that provides representation to all immigrants. But state and local leadership is key and must continue to step up to protect immigrants in our communities by supporting public defender-style deportation defense systems that provide high quality legal defense to immigrants like Quiroz who cannot otherwise afford it.

Amid the pandemic, lawyers and legal service providers in deportation defense programs across the country remain on the front lines fighting every day for their clients, and it is making a difference. Immigrants who are represented are three and a half times more likely to be released from detention on bond and up to 10 times more likely to establish a right to remain in the United States. 

Deportation defense programs are also a common-sense policy solution widely supported by the public, across political lines. Polling by the Vera Institute of Justice has shown that two in three people in the United States, or 67%, support government-funded attorneys for immigrants facing deportation. Although legal defense alone cannot undo the decades of systemic issues facing immigrants, it is a necessary check on the unjust system of criminalization and mass detention of immigrants that particularly targets over-policed immigrants of color.

As communities seek to invest in programs with a community-driven vision of public safety and justice, more than 40 cities, counties, and states have continued, expanded, and created new deportation defense programs. Harris County, Texas, Denver, Prince George’s County, Maryland, and the state of New Jersey have dedicated increased funding for deportation defense programs, while the states of Illinois and Colorado consider similar efforts. A promising new program was recently approved in San Diego County, California that makes legal defense at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where Quiroz was detained, a reality for more people who desperately need it.

Local and state policies that ensure due process and repair the most broken aspects of our immigration system have charted a path forward for federal action. And this critical work must continue across all levels of government. Local and state leaders, community organizations, and legal service providers can hasten progress towards a more just system by joining the movement to secure, protect, and champion counsel for people facing deportation. All of us deserve a right to due process when our life, liberty, or community ties are at stake.

Annie Chen is the director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s SAFE Initiative, which partners with local and state governments, lawyers, and advocates to secure legal defense programs for people facing detention and deportation.

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