CHICAGO — Despite the current political climate, people trust the federal courts system more than many other government institutions, according to a 2019 survey from the National Center for State Courts.
But the same survey showed that people also think that courts aren’t doing enough to empower regular people to navigate the system without a lawyer.
Most of us — with our fluent English skills, broadband internet access and smart phone in hand — can’t imagine dealing with anything more complex than a traffic ticket without a legal expert.
So why would anyone expect an immigrant facing deportation to plead their case before an immigration judge on their own?
It turns out that most people don’t.
Ninety-three percent of people surveyed online by the Vera Institute of Justice believe access to attorneys is (somewhat or very) important for all people, including people in immigration court. This view is held, overwhelmingly, despite political affiliation (89% Republican, 97% Democrat and 91% undeclared).
In fact, 96% of people who self-identify as Democrats, 76% of Republicans, and 87% of undeclared voters said they support government-funded attorneys for people in immigration court.
And even among people who are opposed to immigration to the U.S., more than 70% support the government funding of attorneys for people in immigration court.
“These values of due process and fundamental fairness are deeply ingrained in our society,” said Melissa Garlick, senior planner of policy and advocacy for the Vera Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on reforming justice systems. “Immigrants facing deportation don’t have the right to a publicly funded defender like we provide in a criminal system (because unauthorized immigration is a civil, not a criminal offense). It is not balanced, so the immigrant is set up for failure, because the prosecution always has a lawyer, whereas 70% of immigrants in court go unrepresented.”
And this is the case regardless of whether the immigrant is an adult, a teenager, a toddler or an infant — most of them have to go before a judge and represent themselves in immigration court totally alone.
I can hear the skeptics proclaiming that there are about a million advocacy and aid organizations that provide low-cost or pro-bono services for immigrants.
“We know of at least 35 programs out there that provide some aid,” said Garlick. “Some are privately funded, some are publicly funded. But every program and legal services agency will have their own requirements, whether it’s income or residency. What’s important about universal programs is that they are merit-blind. Right now, the people who are most vulnerable don’t get that help because programs select immigrants to aid based on the likelihood of the success of the case.”
You can imagine what obstacles “the most vulnerable” face in being able to find free or low-cost immigration lawyers. There are those who must deal with language, health and age barriers, as well as many who don’t have access to phones or the internet to handle complex cases.
What the Vera Institute wants is for our current immigration courts system to be reimagined into a system like what our criminal courts offer, where everyone is provided a paid lawyer regardless of the merits of their case.
Yes, that’s a little bit of an odd juxtaposition — and ironic. So many people who say they are “anti-illegal immigrant” do not (or refuse to) understand that living in the U.S. without proper authorization is a civil, not a criminal, violation. Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than their U.S.-born peers.
But if we say and truly believe that we are a nation of laws, should we not want all who go before a judge to have a shot at having the laws work justly, impartially, and in their favor, whenever possible?
It only seems fair.
© 2020 Washington Post Writers Group