Immigrants Facing Deportation Were Excluded from the Right to a Lawyer 61 Years Ago—the Fairness to Freedom Act Would Change That

March 18, 2024
Contact: Zameena Mejia,

NEW YORK, NY — Fairness to Freedom: The Campaign for Universal Representation, led by the National Partnership for New Americans and the Vera Institute of Justice, recognizes that 61 years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people accused of a crime were guaranteed the right to legal representation in the Gideon v. Wainwright case. While this was a huge win for civil rights at the time, people facing deportation in immigration court were not awarded the right to counsel under the ruling. This means that thousands of immigrants every year—including older adults, children, and even babies—are forced to defend themselves alone in immigration court.

One of the millions of people affected by this is Ibrahima Keita, who fled Mali to the United States in 1990 to escape political persecution. He worked hard, got married, and started a family. Despite his efforts to petition for asylum and remain in the U.S. with his family, Keita was ordered deported after receiving inconsistent, unreliable legal representation and executive changes were made to the federal government’s removal priorities. If Keita had been granted the legal right to a lawyer in immigration court as Gideon v. Wainwright afforded those in criminal court, he might still be with his family today. Keita is available for interview.

The impact of this lack of guaranteed, consistent legal representation is widespread and devastating to communities and families. According to the latest data, there were nearly 4 million people in immigration court facing deportation last year, over 65 percent of whom lacked legal representation. And of the approximately 250,000 people who were ordered deported last year, 74 percent lacked legal representation. There are over 17.6 million children—or one in four children—in the U.S. with at least one immigrant parent. People receiving publicly funded immigration legal representation through the Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Network have, on average, between two and three children, and three in four of SAFE clients’ children are U.S. citizens.

Legal representation matters, as people with lawyers compared to those without are more likely to be released from immigration detention and more likely to have successful case outcomes that allow them to remain in the United States. And legal representation for immigrants is possible, as over 55 jurisdictions across the country in the SAFE Network have established publicly funded deportation defense programs. Furthermore, Congress introduced the Fairness to Freedom Act last year, which would secure the legal right to an attorney for immigrants and is endorsed by over 200 organizations across the country.

As immigration rises to the top issue of concern for Americans in this election year, the stakes are increasingly high. The principles of Gideon v. Wainwright—that all people facing complicated and consequential legal battles should have the right to a lawyer—still stand. By passing the Fairness to Freedom Act, we can make that right a reality for all.

Annie Chen, director of the Advancing Universal Representation initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, said: “Unlike in our criminal legal system, there is no public defender system for people in the U.S. immigration system. Excluded from the due process guaranteed in criminal court by the Gideon v. Wainwright ruling 61 years ago, thousands of immigrants every year—many of whom are eligible for some form of immigration relief under our laws—are separated from their families, languish in detention, and are ordered deported simply because they cannot afford to pay for legal representation while in immigration court. This is a cruel racial injustice. With a staggering backlog of over 3.4 million cases pending in immigration court, the universal representation that would be secured through the Fairness to Freedom Act is needed now more than ever—millions of families like Keita’s depend on it.”

Nicole Melaku, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, said: “Today we remember that the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright ruling was a win for civil rights, but also a marker of the progress yet to be made for immigrant communities. No one should have to defend themselves in court alone simply because they cannot afford an attorney. With the stakes as high as potential detention, deportation, and even death, immigrants with complex legal cases in immigration court deserve the same right to a legal advocate that is afforded to people facing charges in criminal court. For decades, a majority of Americans have wanted dignifying immigration solutions that support workable, accessible immigration pathways—and our current moment is no exception. Ensuring the right to an attorney for immigrants is one of these widely supported solutions, which is why we need the Fairness to Freedom Act passed now.”


Fairness to Freedom: The Campaign for Universal Representation was launched by the National Partnership for New Americans and the Vera Institute of Justice in April 2022 with a coalition of over 200 organizations and legal service providers. The campaign’s goal is to establish a federal right to representation for all immigrants facing deportation.

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