Immigration courts in California and around the country deport thousands of immigrants each year, and most of these immigrants are not represented by attorneys during their removal hearings. This is because they are not protected by the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees individuals accused of committing crimes the right to a lawyer. The Biden Administration has indicated that it supports changes that would improve access to legal representation for asylum seekers and immigrants, but lawmakers in New York City have gone much further.
New York sets an example
The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project is a program that was launched in 2013 when the New York City Council allocated $500,000 to ensure that poor immigrants incarcerated or detained in the Empire State have access to an attorney. The program now has a budget of more than $16 million and employs over 100 lawyers, social workers and paralegals. The program has inspired similar efforts in other parts of the country, and experts say that it provides the White House with a working solution that could be adopted nationwide.
The burden of proof
The issue of legal representation in removal proceedings is a major concern for groups advocating for immigration reform because the system overwhelmingly favors the authorities. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. During removal proceedings, the burden of proof is on the immigrant. Programs like the one in New York are designed to balance the scales, and they have been very successful. Before the program was launched, just 3% of unrepresented immigrants in New York had successful outcomes. Immigrants represented by the program’s attorneys now prevail 48% of the time.
The success of programs like the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project should be enough to encourage Congress to take action. However, advocacy groups pursuing meaningful change may still face a long and difficult one road to justice.