Universal representation—a public defender system for all immigrants facing deportation—is based on the fundamental belief that everyone deserves due process under the law. Along with advocates throughout the country, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) have advanced this vision based on the premise that every person facing deportation should be entitled to legal representation regardless of income, race, national origin, or history of contact with the criminal legal system. Achieving this vision supports the broader movements to end immigration detention and mass incarceration and to center racial equity in our nation’s legal systems.Universal representation is an important short- or medium-term objective to help achieve the longer-term goal of ending detention. For example, because legal representation is so strongly associated with high court-appearance rates, a system of genuine universal representation may help significantly reduce or even eliminate the perceived need for immigration detention. For more information, see Emily Tucker, Shiu-Ming Cheer, Melissa Garlick, et al., Advancing Universal Representation: A Toolkit—Module 2: Building the Movement (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, National Immigration Law Center, and Center for Popular Democracy, 2020), 37-39, https://www.vera.org/advancing-universal-representation-toolkit/building-the-movement. Also see Nina Siulc and Noelle Smart, Evidence Shows That Most Immigrants Appear for Immigration Court Hearings (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2020), https://perma.cc/W4MD-64TC.

Universal representation programs result in a model of representation different from what exists in many other indigent immigration legal services that were created with limited resources—and because of a system that undermines access to counsel. Under more common triage models, attorneys perform a preliminary review of potential clients’ cases before selecting the ones they can represent based on criteria such as the perceived strength of the case or personal characteristics.For example, some organizations have selection criteria that favor representing certain clients based on their countries of origin or status as survivors of domestic violence or trafficking. By contrast, under a universal model, attorneys offer representation without considering any factors other than household income and lack of representation.For example, in the SAFE Initiative, most sites have an income restriction of 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For the federal poverty level for families of various sizes, see Social Security Administration, Annual Statistical Supplement (Washington, DC: Social Security Administration, 2019), Table 3.E8, https://perma.cc/B5AB-JP7M. By eliminating selection criteria, universal representation avoids perpetuating narratives about “good” versus “bad” or “deserving” versus “undeserving” immigrants. Universal representation promotes racial equity by providing representation to all, including those who face deportation as a result of contact with the criminal legal system—itself marred by a legacy of slavery and systemic racism—and who often get left behind by triage models.See Annie Chen, “Universal Representation Advances Racial Equity for Immigrants Facing Deportation,” Vera Institute of Justice, October 15, 2020, https://perma.cc/3NH4-EZN6. A shift away from selection criteria brings with it many important considerations for program design and implementation.

This module is for advocates, government staff, and providers—all of whom have significant roles to play in launching a successful program. While providers are responsible for representation, advocates can use the recommendations here to make sure the program is designed to focus on local needs, engage in referrals and supportive services for families of those who are detained, educate community members about the program, and ensure accountability.

To write this module, Vera staff built on the organization’s experience managing and working with dozens of deportation defense programs nationwide, including those in the SAFE Initiative and the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP). Although the focus of this module is on the local and state levels, the authors also drew on Vera’s extensive experience managing national representation programs at the federal level where appropriate. Leaders from several of these programs have contributed their perspectives and expertise. The authors also learned from Vera, CPD, and NILC’s collective expertise on the front lines of the growing movement for universal representation.

Universal representation programs at a glance

Universal representation is predicated on the belief that everyone deserves to be treated with human dignity and respect, including being afforded the right to meaningfully participate in legal proceedings, particularly when their own liberty is at stake. Universal representation programs should emerge from the immigrant communities they serve and be designed with their ongoing engagement. As discussed in Module 2, successful action for universal representation is often rooted in community-based campaigns and diverse coalitions that center the voices and experiences of those who are directly impacted.Tucker, Cheer, Garlick, et al., Advancing Universal Representation, Module 2, 2020. Launching a program requires close coordination among government agencies, advocates, and providers, as well as mechanisms to stay accountable to directly impacted community members. Program design is a big part of bringing this vision to fruition. As many groups work to address the access-to-counsel crisis nationally through a range of related initiatives and strategies—such as representation for bond hearings or pro bono support programs—these key tenets and values are unique to full-scope universal representation:Vera defines “full-scope” representation as representation that spans the entirety of and includes all components of a person’s deportation case, as opposed to a particular hearing or stage (such as representation only for the purposes of obtaining bond).

  • Every person facing deportation is represented by an attorney. Where resources are limited, representation for those in detention should be prioritized.
  • There are no eligibility criteria other than income and a lack of private counsel. Akin to a public defender system, no one is excluded on the basis of a prior criminal conviction, because they live outside of the funded jurisdiction, or because of the perceived merits of their case.
  • Representation begins as early as possible and continues throughout the life of the case. Although the circumstances of each case may vary, representation should begin as soon as the client is detained or the charging document is filed. Attorneys represent clients until there is a final decision on the case: from bond hearing to challenging underlying criminal convictions or other collateral proceedings, when appropriate, through appeal. This continuity of representation ideally will exist even if the person is transferred to a different jurisdiction or voluntarily moves after release from custody.
  • Representation is zealous and person-centered. Attorneys should aggressively hold the government to its burden in every instance and present the fullest defense ethically possible in every person’s case. Representation comes without judgment, with empathy, and is part of a holistic legal defense.
  • Public dollars fund representation. Protecting the basic right of due process is the government’s duty. Investing public money is critical to sustaining and institutionalizing universal representation locally while building toward a national system of deportation defense.

Due to limitations of funding, the local political landscape, or the local legal services infrastructure, it may not always be feasible to meet all these criteria at the outset of a deportation defense program. But together these principles establish a “North Star” for fully funded and sustainable programs that serve all immigrants facing deportation—and set a course toward a federally recognized right to government-funded counsel in deportation proceedings for everyone.