Legal counsel helps turn ‘hopelessness to hopefulness’ for unauthorized immigrants

 Pennsylvania ACLU lawyer Molly Tack-Hooper speaks at a rally in support of immigrants outside City Hall. Many people go through immigration court without an attorney. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Pennsylvania ACLU lawyer Molly Tack-Hooper speaks at a rally in support of immigrants outside City Hall. Many people go through immigration court without an attorney. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

A new study from the nonprofit Center for Popular Democracy found that detained immigrants  with attorneys are far more likely to win their cases. However, some 86 percent of detained immigrants facing deportation proceedings are doing so without legal counsel. 

In Baltimore, one of the cities the center studied, unauthorized immigrants with lawyers were four times as likely to prevail in court against detention or deportation proceedings. 

New York City became the first city in the country to guarantee legal representation for defendants in immigration court. As a result, an immigrant’s chance of winning rose sharply.

Detaining one immigrant cost an estimated $158 a day, according to the center, which it said is poor use of taxpayer money. 

“Legal counsel helps immigrants avoid unnecessary detention,” the center’s Maggie Corser wrote.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, where 13 percent of city’s population is foreign-born, the mayor’s office has been holding free clinics under the banner Take Action Philly for attorneys looking to represent immigrants in the process of naturalization or deportation proceedings.

Miriam Enriquez, who leads Philadelphia’s office of immigrant affairs, said because Philadelphia does not have a dedicated legal-aid fund for immigrants — as New York and Los Angeles do — the clinics are training lawyers who have volunteered to help.

At the last three clinics, between 50 and 80 lawyers participated, she said.

“It shows our immigration communities that people have their backs, and people want to help them, and it turns some of those feelings of hopelessness into hopefulness,” Enriquez said.

Enriquez said the city has been in discussions about raising private money for a legal-aid fund for immigrants, but that effort has not gained traction yet.

Opponents of such a move say legal citizens in civil court are not given a free lawyer, so unauthorized immigrants facing deportation should not be given special treatment.

Enriquez counters that in the absence of a dedicated fund, hundreds in the city to go to immigrant court without lawyers.

Corser cautions that without representation, the process is unfairly slanted to favor the government. 

“Access to counsel not only ensures the legal process is fair, it ensures the process is efficient, with qualified lawyers effectively navigating the courtroom and judges receiving fewer requests for delays in hearings as well as appeals,” Corser said.

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