Julian’s and Ana’s Stories: Why Publicly Funded Deportation Defense Matters

Julian, a green card holder from the Dominican Republic, was thrilled when an immigration judge ruled that he had a legal right to remain in the United States. He had spent months in detention fighting deportation.

People who are detained and facing deportation do not have a right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. As a result, tens of thousands of people each year go unrepresented, including asylum seekers, longtime legal residents, immigrant parents or spouses of U.S. citizens, and even children. Many people who have legal standing to remain in the United States are deported simply because they cannot pay a lawyer to help them navigate complex immigration court proceedings. People from overpoliced communities of color, who are disproportionately targeted and funneled into the deportation pipeline, are particularly at risk of unjust deportation.

This would have been Julian’s fate were it not for his government-funded attorney, who helped him gain relief from being deported. Although he could not afford an immigration lawyer, he was provided a government-funded attorney through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP). NYIFUP is the nation’s first statewide public defender program for immigrants facing deportation, and Vera is a founding member of the coalition that established the project. Julian’s case illustrates the importance of this kind of representation, because even after the judge terminated Julian’s removal proceedings, ICE refused to release him from the county jail where he was detained.

If not for the zealous representation of his attorney, Julian might still be imprisoned, separated from his family, and suffering in a cell for 20 hours a day.

This is his story.

Read Julian's Story
“The recreation area was like if you were in a cage like a dog. I’d go to lunch and then I was back in my cell for the rest of the day. I just sat there for months.”

Vera is committed to ensuring that every person facing deportation receives legal representation regardless of income, race, national origin, or history with the criminal legal system. Based on this goal, in 2021 Vera expanded its Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Initiative to include a total of 23 partner sites that provide government-funded attorneys to detained immigrants. SAFE is a collaboration among governments, immigration legal service providers, and advocates working to build a movement for universal representation: a national public defender-style system for all immigrants facing deportation.

In a system that sets up immigrants to fail, we know that universal representation increases—by a factor of 10—people’s chances of winning relief from deportation and securing their freedom. SAFE will bring legal defense to people in dire need of it, particularly those in detention, where approximately 70 percent go unrepresented. It will protect and keep families together, including those of the 5.5 million U.S.-citizen children whose parents are at risk of deportation. And with Black immigrants disproportionately placed in proceedings—they comprise just 7 percent of the total immigrant population, but 20 percent of all those facing deportation on criminal grounds—universal representation will reduce these systemic racial inequities.

Over the past 20 years, 93 percent of people granted relief from deportation have had lawyers. Conversely, 80 percent of immigrants who received removal orders over the past 20 years did not have access to legal representation. Immigrants with attorneys are 3.5 times more likely to be granted bond, enabling them to escape the prison-like conditions of immigration detention. Most immigrants in deportation proceedings are forced to defend themselves on their own against the federal government, a formidable opponent with nearly unlimited resources.

SAFE has effectively persuaded community and government leaders that defending the rights of their immigrant residents and their families is a solid investment, consistent with our shared values of due process and equal justice for all. The year 2021 saw increased funding for SAFE partners in Santa Ana, California, Long Beach, California, Philadelphia, and Austin. In Colorado, SAFE engaged in statewide advocacy that helped pass legislation to create a state-funded deportation defense program that was signed into law in July 2021.

Building on decades of experience and the growing movement for universal representation that SAFE has helped to establish, Vera is launching a national campaign to establish federally funded representation for all people facing deportation. That means that people like Ana, who received an immigration attorney as a result of SAFE’s Long Beach Justice Fund (LBJF), won’t have to face immigration court alone.

After the trauma and terror of being separated from her son when they were detained at the border, Ana desperately wanted an attorney to help her fight deportation. She did not speak English, knew little of immigration law, and believed deportation was inevitable if she appeared in court alone. She is grateful that the LBJF provided her with an attorney who is guiding her through the asylum application process. Working with LBJF’s partners—the Immigrant Defenders Law Center and Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition—Ana became an outspoken advocate for the local successful campaign to grow LBJF. Because of the powerful advocacy of Ana and others, the City of Long Beach added $300,000 in support of the program. This is her story.

Read Ana's Story
“If I hadn’t had a lawyer, I would have felt totally alone and without support. I would probably have given up and agreed to be deported.”

Vera by the Numbers: Defending People Facing Deportation

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