Series: From the President

The Fairness to Freedom Act Will Save Lives

Nicholas Turner President & Director // Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Apr 18, 2023

Today, United States Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker and U.S. Representatives Norma Torres, Pramila Jayapal, and Grace Meng introduced the Fairness to Freedom Act, which would establish the right to a federally funded lawyer for every person facing deportation who cannot afford legal representation.

This legislation will save lives.

For people who flee serious danger in their homelands, losing an immigration case can truly mean the difference between life and death. Yet, people facing deportation in immigration court are not entitled to an attorney unless they can pay for one themselves—and most cannot. In the more than 2.1 million cases pending in immigration court, more than 1.2 million people lack legal representation. Adults, families, and even unaccompanied children are forced to appear alone, defending themselves against trained government attorneys.

To help ensure that people facing deportation are treated fairly, more than 50 jurisdictions across the country—including Dallas, Texas; Dane County, Wisconsin; and the states of Nevada and Colorado—have created their own publicly funded legal representation programs. And legislators in New York are seeking to make it the first state to guarantee a right to counsel.

These public defender-style programs help people like Reynaldo*, a father of young daughters who spent more than six months in immigration detention facing deportation. “If I had been deported, I would have been dead,” he said. He could not afford an attorney but was aided by the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project, a publicly funded program in Philadelphia that launched in 2019. His lawyer figured out that Reynaldo qualified for protection from deportation under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. “I couldn’t pay for help but thank God I could find an immigration attorney to help me tell the judge that my life was in danger.”

The Fairness to Freedom Act will ensure that the kinds of government-funded legal services that were available to Reynaldo become standard for all people facing deportation. Immigration law is notoriously complex, and it is staggeringly difficult for immigrants to win the right to remain in the United States without an attorney. In fact, one study found that only the odds were 5.5 greater of successful outcomes for represented people.

Jonathan*, who fled El Salvador as a teenager, was eligible to remain in the United States under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), a 1997 law passed to help tens of thousands of Central Americans who fled political instability and violence in the 1980s. But Jonathan had never heard of this law and said he would have certainly lost his case if a publicly funded attorney hadn’t helped him claim the designation. “I was certain I was going to be deported… I lost my landscaping job when they detained me and I had no money for a lawyer,” he said. “[My lawyer] figured out that I should be eligible for my green card because I was less than 21 years old when my dad became a legal resident through NACARA. I didn’t even know this law existed. I am so grateful for her help…. I saw so many people give up because they didn’t have lawyers and had no hope. I wish there were more attorneys to help people like us.”

People in the United States agree. Polling Vera conducted in partnership with the survey firm Lucid found that two in three people in the United States support government-funded representation for immigrants facing deportation, including 80 percent of Democrats, and a majority of Republicans.

Congress needs to pass, and President Biden needs to sign, the Fairness to Freedom Act as an important step toward remaking our fundamentally cruel and unfair immigration system. Although legal representation alone is not enough to undo decades of systemic immigration injustices, without it, many people will continue to be separated from their families and returned to danger.

No one should have to stand alone in court, especially when the consequences—family separation, banishment from home, and return to potential danger—are so high. All people deserve a fair day in court, regardless of how much is in their bank account. We need the Fairness to Freedom Act, and we need it now.

*Name changed to protect identity.