Advancing Universal Representation Initiative

Who we are

Vera’s Advancing Universal Representation initiative is driving a national movement for universal representation. Our goal is to establish a federal right to representation for all immigrants facing deportation.

Vera’s work builds on 15 years of experience pioneering universal representation programs, notably with the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP) and at the federal level for certain adults and unaccompanied children. In 2017, Vera launched the SAFE (Safety & Fairness for Everyone) Network to accelerate the expansion of universal representation programs across the country. Since then, Vera has partnered with 23 jurisdictions, growing the number of publicly-funded deportation defense programs to more than 55 jurisdictions funding deportation defense across 21 states.

By fighting for universal representation, the initiative and its partners are keeping families together; disrupting the criminalization and deportation of immigrants and their families; and protecting people from the deplorable conditions of immigration detention.

Driving the movement for universal representation

We believe that every person facing deportation is entitled to high-quality, person-centered legal representation regardless of income, race, national origin, or history with the criminal legal system. We aim to make federally mandated universal representation a reality.

Fairness to Freedom Campaign

The Vera Institute of Justice and the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) have launched a campaign to push for legislation that establishes a universal right to federally funded legal representation for anyone facing deportation.

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What is universal representation?

Universal representation—a public defender system for people facing deportation—ensures that everyone has access to an attorney. By ensuring that everyone has equal access to due process, universal representation promotes a more equitable system for all. Universal representation is a key part of fighting for broader reforms to remedy the fundamentally cruel and unfair immigration system.

Why do we need universal representation?

Unlike  in the criminal legal system,  which guarantees the right to defense counsel under the Sixth Amendment,  there is no right to  appointed  counsel for people facing detention and deportation even though the stakes are just as high.

As a result, most immigrants facing deportation — particularly those in detention—go unrepresented, forced to defend themselves against the federal government alone. As a result, every day, people with a legal right to remain in the United States are deported simply because they could not afford an attorney to help defend that right before a judge.

The SAFE Network: A model for universal representation

The SAFE (Safety & Fairness for Everyone) Network is a unique collaboration of government leaders, legal service providers, and community-based advocates all working in partnership with Vera to stand up and grow publicly funded, universal representation programs at the state and local levels.

SAFE has highlighted the power and influence of local leadership. Through universal representation, government and community leaders are standing up for their immigrant neighbors and fighting for investments in communities, paving the way for federal action.

These programs enjoy widespread public support and offer a solution that will ensure that everyone is treated with basic fairness.

Percent of deportation cases where person has been in detention and is without a lawyer (FY 2016 or later)
pending deportation cases in immigration court, as of January 2022
cases where people are lacking legal representation as they face deportation, as of September 2022 (1)

(1) Source: "New Deportation Proceedings Filed in Immigration Court." TRAC Immigration. Data through September 2022, accessed October 2022. These 800,000 cases refer to pending cases, among cases initiated fiscal year 2020 and later.

Contact us
Annie Chen Initiative Director, Advancing Universal Representation (212)-334-1300
Zameena Mejia Communications Manager
Our research

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Universal Representation Advances Racial Equity for Immigrants Facing Deportation

Oct 15, 2020