The Movement for Universal Representation Grows Stronger. Vera’s SAFE Initiative Celebrates Another Historic Year

The Vera Institute of Justice’s SAFE Initiative commends the numerous states and local communities who succeeded this past year in stabilizing, expanding, and creating new programs throughout the country that provide legal defense to immigrants facing deportation. The movement for universal representation and the creation of a federal defender system that ensures universal, zealous, person-centered legal representation has never been stronger.

This forward progress is even more remarkable given the multiple crises of the past year. The COVID pandemic exacerbated inequities in health, safety, and income, making more urgent the need to dismantle systemic racism and undo decades of mass criminalization and incarceration. Meanwhile, the new Biden administration, while taking some initial steps to restore protections for immigrants, continues to arrest, detain, and deport them, separating families and communities. People in detention and facing deportation endure high stakes in immigration court and a terrifying fight for their health and safety, making access to counsel more critical than ever.

Against this backdrop, communities successfully demanded public investment in representation for immigrants, including:

  • The City of Long Beach, California committed to leveraging federal sources of stimulus and recovery funding to aid an increase in public funding for the Long Beach Justice Fund.
  • The City of Philadelphia increased FY22 funding for the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP).
  • In Indianapolis, a new immigrant legal defense fund was approved.
  • In San Diego, California, a new $5 million legal defense program for immigrants was established—the first of its kind in a border county.
  • In the Fort Collins City Council in Colorado, a new proposed immigrant legal defense fund is also pending a final vote in July.

In addition to these local victories, three states passed legislation or budgets establishing or expanding universal representation programs:

  • In Colorado (CO HB21-1194) and Nevada (NV AB 376), state legislation created new programs and public funding for deportation defense. In New Jersey, the state budget for the next fiscal year included a $2 million increase to its deportation defense program.

And the past year’s legislative session also produced other achievements and markers paving the way for universal representation in the future, including:

  • In Illinois (HB25), state legislation advanced to create a task force to make recommendations to implement statewide universal representation.
  • Also in Illinois (HB2790), state legislation passed to authorize the Cook County Public Defender’s Office to start representing people in immigration court proceedings.
  • In Maryland, new legislation was introduced that would have created a statutory right to appointed counsel for detained immigrants.
  • In New York, legislation was re-introduced that would create a statutory right to counsel for all immigrants facing deportation.

The introduction of these bills propelled new and expanded coalitions advancing universal representation and momentum for additional legislative momentum next session.

These new programs join the more than 45 jurisdictions, including 22 partners of Vera’s SAFE Initiative, that are committed to public funding for deportation defense.

As the federal government seeks ways to expand access to justice, it should look toward these diverse communities that are taking the action needed to counter the systemic injustice of our current immigration system. No one should be forced to go through immigration court without legal defense.

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

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