Universal representation—publicly funded deportation defense for all—is more urgent now than ever before.

In this treacherous environment full of new policies that sow uncertainty and fear in immigrant communities, widespread access to counsel is urgently needed. Recognizing the need to act, communities have begun to organize with a growing and diverse group of state and local governments around the country moving to fill the gaping hole left by the failure of the federal system. These local and state governments have led the way by dedicating public taxpayer dollars for sorely needed deportation defense programs.

This guide advocates for a “universal representation” model of deportation defense. Under this model:

  • Every person facing imminent threat of deportation is represented by an attorney.
  • Where resources are limited, representation for those in detention is prioritized.
  • There are no eligibility criteria other than income and a lack of private counsel. Akin to public defense in criminal cases, no one is excluded on the basis of a prior criminal conviction, residency outside of the funded jurisdiction, or any other reason.
  • Representation is merits-blind. Clients are represented without considering the likelihood that the case will have a “successful” outcome in immigration court.
  • Representation is continuous and begins at the onset of the case. Attorneys represent clients until there is a final decision on the case: from bond hearing to hearings challenging underlying criminal convictions or other collateral proceedings, through to appeal. This continuity of representation exists even if the person is transferred to a different jurisdiction or voluntarily moves upon release from custody.
  • Public taxpayer dollars fund representation. Protecting the basic right of due process is a public duty. Investing public money is also critical to sustaining and institutionalizing universal representation locally while building toward a national system of deportation defense.

It will not always be feasible—due to limitations of funding, local political landscapes, or local legal services infrastructure—to meet all of these criteria at the outset of a deportation defense program. However, these principles together establish a “North Star” that sets a course toward fully funded and sustainable programs in individual jurisdictions and a federally recognized right to government-funded counsel in removal proceedings for everyone.