Public defenders push for program to offer immigrants entry to attorneys

Public defenders push for program to provide immigrants access to attorneys

Cook County’s public defenders are part of a national coalition calling on President-elect Joe Biden to adopt a 10-point program to give immigrants access to lawyers in deportation proceedings.

The group, the Public Defenders Coalition for Immigrant Justice, outlined the program during a press conference Wednesday, which ranged from imposing a year-long moratorium on deportations to restructuring immigration courts.

San Francisco defense attorney Mano Raju said during the virtual press conference that a patchwork of groups is working across the country to provide legal aid to immigrants, but that these efforts are not enough. He pointed out that even a minor criminal conviction could have serious repercussions on a person’s immigration case.

Cook County defense attorney Amy Campanelli said after the press conference that wealth is often a matter of whether or not a person in deportation proceedings can have access to a lawyer.

“You have the right to seek advice in theory, but you really don’t do it if you can’t afford a lawyer,” Campanelli said of people with cases before an immigration court.

According to an analysis of data from Syracuse University, 737 people who were deported in fiscal 2019 were represented in the Chicago Immigration Court. In comparison, 3,404 people who were deported during the same period had no legal representation according to the analysis.

Last year, the Cook County Board raised its budget to set up a new immigration unit in the county public defender’s office. The new unit will give individuals involved in criminal matters access to an immigration attorney so that, according to a press release, the individual can understand how the criminal matter may affect their immigration case or status.

Hena Mansori, a supervisory attorney in the new division, said she had already spent some time training defense lawyers on how to obtain information about someone’s immigration history so they could investigate people who were also on criminal charges in Cook County are.

Mansori said that when arrested for a crime, immigrants are often punished twice because many go to immigration detention after conviction, even if the conviction provides for a suspended sentence.

If the coalition is successful, federal funding could help legally represent immigrants, Campanelli said. She believes that more lawyers in immigration courts could ultimately lead to more reforms in how the courts operate. For example, she believes that immigrants shouldn’t see an immigration judge in person just through a video, as happened before the pandemic.

On the ground, Campanelli is hoping that state or county law can expand her legal counsel to include Cook County residents in immigration tribunals.

Other Coalition items include: reversing Trump-era immigration policies, ending immigrant detention, ending a prison for deportation, ending the war on drugs against immigrants, restoring discretion in immigration cases, restoring ways to achieve legal immigration status and defusing US immigration and customs control.

Elvia Malagón’s coverage of social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.