One Big Thing Cities Can Do on Immigration

As we near a historic election threatened by efforts to disenfranchise voters, the U.S. continues to wrestle with the systemic racism of its institutions, including the American immigration system.

While the tide of inequities and injustices confronting immigrant communities is nothing new, it has risen dramatically in recent years, the result ofstepped-up enforcement and the relentless advancement of anti-immigrant policies. As of mid-2020, the Trump administration has implementedmore than 400 immigration executive actions ranging from border and interior enforcement to visa processes that negatively target immigrants and immigration. Some of the most extreme orders have been implemented under the cover of the Covid-19 crisis, such as travel restrictions on the U.S.-Mexico border that have effectively closed the door to asylum claims there. A record high of more than half a million people were sent to immigration detention in 2019 as the federal government has advanced the process to deport them.

And there seems to be no end in sight. In just the past two months, we have been alerted to the horrors ofmass sterilizations of immigrant women in a detention center in Georgia, the uncheckedspread of Covid-19 infederal detention facilities, theresumption of immigration raids in communities across the country, and the hundreds of migrant children whosefamilies cannot be located. 

Despite the devastating consequences of these policies and practices, immigrants do not have the right to a lawyer in immigration court. As a result, tens of thousands of people each year are forced to navigate the highly complex immigration legal system alone, including asylum seekers, longtime legal residents, immigrant parents or spouses of U.S. citizens and even children.

Currently, 70% of people in detention lack government-funded legal representation. The impacts of this injustice are severe: In the past 20 years, only 8% of people without a lawyer were spared deportation.

But political forces at the local level are providing some hope. In the midst of this chaos, a movement has been building to provide lawyers for all immigrants facing deportation through local collaborations.

Prior to 2017, locally funded programs to provide public defenders to those facing deportation existed in only two states. Today, there are nearly 40 jurisdictions across 18 states that provide lawyers to as many immigrants as possible facing deportation.

Some of these programs are funded solely through budget allocations at the local and state level. Others are supported by more complex partnerships: In 21 of these jurisdictions, theVera Institute of Justice’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Initiative coordinates local governments with legal service providers and advocates to secure universal representation programs. According to arecent national poll by the Vera Institute, these programs are widely supported by the public: 87% of people polled support government-funded lawyers for people in immigration court. 

Even amid the pandemic, federal immigration authorities have continued to target communities, book people into detention and tear apart families. Local activism has elevated deportation defense as a vital part of a cities’ public health response. Activism around divestment from local police budgets has also created a healthy conversation around how limited local resources can instead be reinvested in communities of color, including investing in local deportation defense programs.

Critical to these efforts is leadership at the local level, including those public officials willing to listen to and follow the lead of advocates in their communities who are on the front lines of this crisis. In recent months, we’ve seen elected officials, mayors and other local leaders recognize the urgency of this moment and fight to prioritize funding for these programs in their city budgets. Philadelphia is one such example: The citylaunched its universal representation program, the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP), in partnership with Vera in 2019. This year, the program will represent more than 60 immigrants facing deportation, and one-third of the clients it has represented have been released from detention.

This includes people like Rolando Galeano, a Philadelphia resident for more than 10 years who was able to reunite with his family after PAIFUP lawyers took on his case. Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Rolando after he dropped his kids off at school, detained him 100 miles away from his children, and initially refused to release him when he came down with symptoms of Covid-19 after his cellmate tested positive. 

When the funding for the Philadelphia project came under threat this year in an uncertain fiscal environment, activists worked together with elected officials in Philadelphia to successfully restore funding for the city’s deportation defense fund. Advocates argued the local program is more important than ever during the pandemic as lawyers are critical to getting people out of detention facilities that are Covid-19 hotspots and put residents at greater risk.

Many other jurisdictions have followed suit and not only renewed but secured additional funding for deportation defense. For example, New York State has retained full funding for immigrant legal services, including deportation defense. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed $1 million for the Los Angeles Justice Fund. And other places such as Baltimore; Atlanta; Prince George’s County, Maryland; and Long Beach, California, have all continued or expanded funding for their deportation defense programs. These successes would not have been possible without local activists and communities working in close collaboration with leadership, holding elected officials accountable to the people they serve.

When local government leaders stand up for immigrant communities, it offers a necessary and powerful counter-narrative to the federal government’s relentless anti-immigrant policies and dangerous, divisive rhetoric.

If we wish to truly live our values as Americans, we must encourage all local leaders to get behind the growing movement for universal representation to help to ensure that due process is a right for all, not just a privilege for some.

Kica Matos is vice president of Initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice. Helen Gym is a Philadelphia city councilmember and a partner of the SAFE Initiative led by Vera. Both have worked as immigrants’ rights activists and in local government.

Source: Read Full Article