In April, Vera and the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) launched Fairness to Freedom: The Campaign for Universal Representation. This campaign calls for federal legislation that would establish a right to federally funded legal representation for anyone facing deportation.

Deportation—separation from family, severance from work, and exile from community—is one of the worst punishments a judge can hand down. Yet, the Constitution only guarantees a person legal representation if they appear in criminal court, and immigration is a civil matter. This means that people facing deportation in immigration court are not guaranteed to have an attorney if they cannot afford one.

As a result, every day, people who could have established their right to live in the United States are deported. People in immigration detention without lawyers prevailed in only 3 percent of their cases, according to one 2018 study. Other studies show that people represented by lawyers in immigration court are up to 10.5 times more likely to establish their right to remain in the United States (compared to people without lawyers). Money should not determine which families are separated and which people are returned to countries where they may face serious danger.

The Fairness to Freedom campaign is backed by a growing and diverse coalition of more than 130 endorsers. This work is an outgrowth of Vera’s SAFE (Safety & Fairness for Everyone) Network, a collaboration among governments, immigration legal service providers, and advocates working to expand publicly funded universal representation programs across the country. Since Vera launched the SAFE Network in 2017, we have partnered with 23 jurisdictions, growing the number of publicly funded deportation defense programs to more than 50 jurisdictions across 21 states. These include Bexar County, Texas—which encompasses San Antonio—and the State of Nevada, which launched a new deportation defense fund this year.

As a result, fewer people will face the terror of appearing in immigration court without an attorney to protect their rights, which greatly increases the odds that they will be unjustly deported. While Vera advocates for the north star of a federal right to counsel, we are working with states and localities to build movement and pave the way for the federal government. In New York, Vera is co-leading a campaign to make the state the first in the country to guarantee a right to counsel for all people facing deportation, through the passage of the Access to Representation Act.

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Illustration by Mike Centeno
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Illustration by Mike Centeno

Raina’s Story

Raina* could not understand the papers that were given to her as she sat, shackled hand and foot, in a jail in upstate New York. She had left her hometown after the people responsible for torturing and killing her brother began threatening her. She saw the United States as a beacon of hope and safety, but found herself imprisoned instead of aided. She spent weeks locked up in Clinton County Jail and was forced to sign paperwork in English that she did not understand. She later learned she had signed papers giving up her right to claim asylum and agreeing to deportation. She almost certainly would have been unjustly deported until Halinka Zolcik, a publicly funded representative with the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, took on her case and helped her request asylum.

“Everything change[s] once you can say that you have a lawyer and you are not alone. It is too important to have a lawyer. Their duty is to defend our rights because we are human beings. Even though we are in another country, we are human beings.”

*Name changed to protect identity.