A key part of navigating the political landscape is to identify people outside the process—in government and civil society—who can help persuade primary decision makers and elevate the campaign. Campaigns should research the priorities, interests, and needs of decision makers to determine who and what might motivate them to support the campaign. In addition to decision makers, campaigns should cultivate other allies and coalition members who can offer support to the campaign. Potential allies may include retired immigration judges, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, criminal justice reform advocates, faith leaders, educators, union leaders and union members, business leaders, and experts working with nonpartisan state fiscal policy groups. Engaging organizations that represent these allies, such as a police chiefs’ association or a chamber of commerce, can be particularly effective. These partners can be engaged to express support publicly—such as through testimony or sign-on letters—and/or can be engaged “behind the scenes,” such as through private outreach with targeted elected officials. Whether privately or in public, this is a way to involve diverse messengers to convey support for universal representation and encourage decision makers to become more interested in the topic or address this as a key priority in their legislative agenda.

Use a wide range of strategies to advocate directly with elected officials.

Engaging policymakers and elected officials is critical to advancing any universal representation campaign. Some key strategies for advocating with government include the following.

  • Build relationships with the staff of elected officials and regularly engage with them about the issues of detention and the immigration court system. These staff members often play key “insider” roles and can be critical allies.
  • Demonstrate that the coalition adds value by sharing fact sheets, resources, data, case studies, and other useful information with staff—rather than simply coming in with an immediate ask.
  • Put local elected officials in touch with government champions from other jurisdictions who have successful programs so they can share their experiences.
  • Testify at public legislative and budget hearings, at which coalition members can submit relevant testimony about the issue. Directly impacted individuals should be involved, to represent the community’s priorities.
  • Organize briefings with a government champion about universal representation for elected officials and their staff or for certain groups, such as Black and Latine legislative caucuses.
  • Organize a delegation of elected officials to visit immigration court and/or a detention center and witness firsthand the court hearings of those currently detained (the “detained docket”), exposing lawmakers to the harsh realities of what it looks like to navigate the immigration system while held in federal custody.
  • Meet with candidates during an election cycle to make universal representation an issue that candidates feel they must take a position on or else face consequences over.
  • Elevate data and stories of client constituents about the impact of detention and deportation in an elected official’s district to make the case that universal representation would have a positive impact.
  • Use public opinion research that points to significant support for government-funded lawyers in immigration court.[]To see the results of public opinion polling in select U.S. jurisdictions, visit Vera Institute of Justice, “Taking the Pulse,” March 2020, https://www.vera.org/publications/taking-the-pulse.
  • Elevate government champions and mobilize communities by engaging in grassroots organizing tactics that build public pressure and attention, including rallies, petitions and other digital advocacy tools, press conferences, protests, canvassing, and action days.

Analyze and understand the broader context.

Campaigns for universal representation take place within a larger local, state, and national context. It is important for advocates to develop an analysis of the political context at each level of government and identify other pending priorities to help frame the campaign’s political reality and strategy. Depending on the circumstance, the context may prove challenging or advantageous—or some combination thereof. For example, the election of new leadership at the local or state level may open the door to advancing a campaign much faster than anticipated, especially if the coalition has done the work before the election to encourage candidates to support universal representation as a priority issue. Similarly, harsh immigration enforcement priorities and anti-immigrant rhetoric at the federal level can sharpen the sense of urgency among advocates and lawmakers to support local initiatives that protect community members who are at risk of removal. For example, cities and states have increasingly become the front line of defense for immigrant communities since the 2016 presidential election. But even a pro-immigrant political environment does not guarantee success, and coordination with other policy priorities for immigrant rights is essential.

Using election cycles to secure funding

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Assuming that the campaign gains some momentum, the process of negotiating the shape and scope of the universal representation program with elected officials will also pick up. Stakeholders may have conflicting visions of what the program should look like, such as how much money to allocate for deportation defense, who should be eligible for the program, and who should provide the services. Government decision makers also may disagree about these issues; for example, there could be differences between a mayor and the city council, a governor and the state legislature, or among an executive office’s staff members.

Because navigating these interests can be complicated, it is important for the coalition to be as unified as possible in its goals, messaging, and political bottom line. Even if the coalition must ultimately make concessions, a clear and transparent decision-making process will help ensure consistent external messaging during negotiations, making it likelier that the result is an inclusive program that meets the community’s long-term needs and interests. And to keep the coalition united and help its members negotiate effectively, it is critical to have a vision of a pathway to a scalable, sustainable universal representation program.

Focus on a program that is truly universal, avoids due process exclusions, and upholds an equitable vision of justice.

The universal representation model of deportation defense is described in more detail in Module 1.[]See Module 1 of this toolkit for more information about the importance of avoiding due process exclusions and for a description of how a truly universal representation model seeks to achieve racial equity. Berberich, Chen, Lazar, et al., Advancing Universal Representation, Module 1, 2018. Continue reading this module for more recommendations about how to communicate with policymakers and members of the public about these issues. Several of the model’s key tenets help ensure that representation comports with this vision for a public defender system in immigration court: that every person facing deportation has access to a government-funded attorney to represent them and that when resources are limited, representation is prioritized for people who are detained.[]Ibid., 6.

To advance universal representation, campaigns should be prepared to advocate against due process exclusions—eligibility criteria that make people with certain criminal convictions ineligible to receive representation through the program. Also known as “carve-outs,” such exclusions run counter to a truly universal representation model, which posits that every human being fundamentally deserves due process in a court of law.

Deportation defense programs that permit exclusions based on contact with the criminal legal system perpetuate racial discrimination and disparate outcomes, denying access to justice for people and communities of color.[]Ibid., 16-17. As with the country’s justice policies and practices, structural racism is intrinsic to its immigration system; universal representation ensures that legal services are not denied to people who may need them the most because of their involvement with the criminal legal system.[]For a description of systemic racism in the criminal legal system, see Elizabeth Hinton, LeShae Henderson, and Cindy Reed, An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), https://perma.cc/5RW5-QYYS. For information about systemic racism in the immigration system, see Juliana Morgan-Trostle, Kexin Zheng, and Carl Lipscombe, The State of Black Immigrants—Part II: Black Immigrants in the Mass Criminalization System (New York: Black Alliance for Just Immigration and NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, 2016), https://perma.cc/NHM8-CFFZ.

It is critical that coalitions maintain a strong commitment to preserving a universal representation model and be prepared to articulate the reasons for that commitment to a variety of stakeholders. If due process exclusions are raised during the negotiation process, campaigns may consider adopting the following additional strategies.

  • Discuss and clarify the campaign’s position on due process exclusions. When people have disparate views about carve-outs, the coalition might host forums involving members who can discuss the campaign’s position. Strive to reach consensus against exclusions and establish core principles in case these issues come up with legislators and other government officials. The more prepared the coalition is to handle this discussion and the more unified members are about its principles, the harder it will be for lawmakers to create programs that are not truly universal.
  • Allow coalition members to express misgivings they may have about demanding universality. If unity isn’t possible, take the time to address people’s concerns as a group so that the coalition goes into conversations with policymakers having agreed on its principles. If that isn’t possible, coalition members should discuss beforehand how to minimize any challenges that may result from people’s differing perspectives so that they don’t jeopardize the campaign’s goals.
  • Partner with advocates for racial justice, victims’ rights, and criminal justice reform. These leaders, organizations, and advocates can help push back against carve-outs by addressing specific concerns about public safety and promoting the importance of justice reform. Engage these allies in regular dialogue about the interconnectedness of the two systems and draw on their expertise, political acumen, and relationships. Invite them to weigh in on the campaign’s strategy and messaging and offer to provide similar support to their campaigns.
  • Prepare responses to address specific reasons stakeholders may have for proposing exclusions. The underlying concerns motivating people’s support for due process exclusions are often political and stem from negative media attention and myths of immigrant criminality.[]Anna Flagg, “Is There a Connection Between Undocumented Immigrants and Crime?” May 13, 2019, The Marshall Project, https://perma.cc/WK44-HA5P. When this is a significant concern, it may be a good idea for a campaign to engage several elected officials and other government champions to support the program and the universal representation model.
  • Prepare influential community members to speak out about the harms of immigration detention and the importance of due process and legal representation in immigration court. Potential validators include faith leaders, judges, public health experts, advocates for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, law enforcement officers, city councillors, state legislators, members of Congress, and/or influencers such as high-profile members of the local community.
  • Elevate the voices of people who have had criminal justice entanglement and have been affected by the immigration system, ensuring opportunities for them to share their stories and analysis and securing public forums for them to do so. In particular, seek out spokespeople in communities where elected officials are in favor of due process exclusions to help counteract that perspective.

If it becomes evident that the coalition will have to choose between a program with some due process exclusions or no program at all, its members should consider and discuss relevant factors, including these:

  • the prospect of eliminating the due process exclusion in the future (depending on political feasibility and the campaign’s financial bandwidth);
  • impact on local immigrants and families in need of representation;
  • the priorities of directly impacted people in the jurisdiction;
  • members’ priorities and the need to keep the coalition intact; and
  • relationships with elected officials and government champions.

A coalition may also consider ways to narrow the scope of the exclusion as much as possible, for example, by directing money from private sources to cover people who would be excluded by the publicly funded carve-out.