Tucked into Mayor Marty Walsh’s proposed budget for next year is a new pot of public money dedicated to help immigrants facing deportation pay for legal representation. While not a groundbreaking policy idea, it nonetheless represents a progressive step in the right direction.
Establishing a legal counsel fund for immigrants who can’t afford it was an idea floated two years ago by then-City Councilor Tito Jackson, who was running for mayor against Walsh. The concept’s urgency has become clearer than ever.
Contrary to what happens in the criminal justice system, there is no right to counsel in immigration courts. When indigent immigrants face federal immigration judges, there are no public defenders assigned to their case. It’s not just unauthorized immigrants who find themselves fighting deportation — any noncitizen, including green-card holders and people with visas, can be placed in removal proceedings for a wide range of reasons, including noncriminal offenses (such as when legal status is acquired through a marriage that is short-lived, with ensuing divorce) and minor, nonviolent crimes.
For them, having legal representation makes all the difference, especially given the complexity and density of our immigration laws. Considering the anti-immigrant impulses of President Trump and his senior advisor Stephen Miller — who are reportedly okay with breaking the law in their efforts to reduce the number of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States — the need to preserve due process and grant a fair hearing to noncitizens is even more imperative. (Case in point: Last summer, in the thick of the family separation crisis orchestrated by the Trump administration, toddlers as young as 3 years old were ordered to attend their deportation proceedings by themselves.)
A 2015 national study of over a million deportation cases between 2007 and 2012 detailed the unequal access to legal counsel in immigration courts. The study, published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, found that more than 60 percent of all immigrants and 86 percent of detained immigrants attended their court hearing without an attorney.
People with lawyers, not surprisingly, experienced better outcomes than those without them: Immigrants were 15 times more likely to seek relief and 5.5 times more likely to get it with legal representation. In Boston, a policy memo prepared by local advocacy groups found that only 4 percent of the more than 20,000 cases that came before the Boston Immigration Court between 2010 and 2015 were cases in which an individual without an attorney won their case. “In stark contrast, people with lawyers were granted relief from deportation in 49 percent” of all the cases over the same period, the report noted.
In 2013, New York became the first city in the country to pilot a program, at a Manhattan immigration court, offering free legal counsel to low-income immigrants detained and facing deportation. The project was funded the following year by the New York City Council and has grown significantly statewide after yielding impressive outcomes: Immigrants in New York state have the highest rate of legal representation in the country. New Jersey launched a similar statewide pilot in 2017. Major cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, already have some form of a publicly funded universal counsel program for immigrants.
Meanwhile, Walsh established the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund in the fall of 2017 relying entirely on private donations and reaching beyond Boston to cities like Chelsea and Fall River. The $1 million fund issues grants to partnering nonprofits, which in turn find and pay for lawyers for immigrants. Now Boston, for the first time, has included public dollars in its budget for the fund — $50,000. It’s a modest start, but will be enough to help about 30 additional Boston cases. Since each immigration case, on average, involves 2.5 people, about 75 Bostonians will benefit.
“We’re not just saying, ‘We’re a city of immigrants,’ ” said Marty Martinez, the city’s chief of health and human services. “The mayor wants to make sure that we’re putting action behind those words and that immigrants are protected.”
Of all Bostonians, roughly 30 percent are foreign-born and 15 percent are noncitizens. Nearly 500 US-born kids in the city lose a parent to deportation every year. The funds, besides making a clear statement of values by the city, will have a dramatic and tangible impact in the lives of Boston immigrants, who often find themselves overmatched by an increasingly hostile federal immigration system.