One provision of the Senate’s 844-page immigration reform bill is the provision that for the first time, the U.S. government would voluntarily provide a free lawyer to an immigrant in deportation proceedings. Currently, the bill only provides lawyers to certain subgroups: the mentally disabled, children and “particularly vulnerable.”
This provision, according to Slate writer Mark Noferi, is perhaps the most groundbreaking part of the bill. Though the right isn't guaranteed for everyone, “the seeds are there for the broader right to counsel for detained immigrants that criminal defendants have received for 50 years,” Noferi wrote.
“Congress should provide (legal representation),” he said. “Immigrants who are detained and awaiting hearings cannot adequately represent themselves while jailed. And while other parts of immigration reform are hugely controversial, providing lawyers to detainees would be a surprisingly easy sell politically, if history is a guide.”
A study by Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit examined the scope of what he calls the “immigrant representation crisis.” He cites data suggesting that while some detainees are able to hire legal representation to find someone to help them for free, 84 percent have to go it alone.
Stuck in remote detention facilities with a life in America at stake, detainees must argue a deportation hearing on their own — in English, far from family who might find documents or witnesses, against trained government lawyers interpreting complex statutes, wrote Noferi.
Given these circumstances, Noferi says it should come as no surprise that Katzmann’s study found 97 percent of detainees without lawyers lost their cases, while 74 percent of immigrants who were detained and had counsel succeeded.
An argument against this proposal is the cost to taxpayers. Noferi counters that providing legal representation for detainees may actually be the most financially responsible thing the government can do. “The lawyers most likely pay for themselves by increasing the efficiency of immigration courts, reducing time spent in costly detention and lowering the cost of caring for children separated from their parents. Detention of one immigrant costs nearly $60,000 per year — about the cost of one lawyer, who could help hundreds escape detention and fight deportation. That’s money much better spent.”