Public defenders push for program to provide immigrants access to attorneys

A national coalition of public defenders join calls for incoming Biden administration to overhaul immigration policies.

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Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said wealth often determines whether or not a person in deportation proceedings can have access to an attorney.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file photo

Cook County public defenders are among a national coalition calling on President-elect Joe Biden to adopt a 10-point program that would give immigrants in deportation proceedings access to attorneys.

The group, the Public Defenders Coalition for Immigrant Justice, during a news conference Wednesday outlined the program, ranging from issuing a 1-year moratorium on deportations to restructuring immigration courts.

Mano Raju, the San Francisco public defender, said during the virtual news conference that a patchwork of groups across the country works to provide immigrants with legal help, but that those efforts aren’t enough. He pointed out how even a minor criminal conviction could have severe implications for a person’s immigration case.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said after the news conference that it often comes down to a question of wealth whether or not a person in deportation proceedings can have access to an attorney.

“You have a right to counsel in theory, but you really do not if you can’t afford counsel,” Campanelli said about people with cases in immigration court.

In Chicago’s immigration court, 737 people who were ordered deported in fiscal year 2019 had legal representation, according to an analysis of data from Syracuse University. In comparison, 3,404 people who were ordered deported during that same time frame did not have legal representation, according to the analysis.

Last year, the Cook County Board included in its budget funds to create a new immigration unit within the county’s public defender’s office. The new unit will provide people entangled in criminal cases with access to an immigration attorney so the person could understand how the criminal case could impact their immigration case or status, according to a news release.

Hena Mansori, a supervising attorney in the new unit, said she has already spent time training public defenders about how to obtain information about a person’s immigration history so she can begin screening individuals who are also facing criminal charges in Cook County.

Mansori said immigrants often get penalized twice if they get arrested for a crime, because many go into immigration custody after a conviction even if the sentencing called for a probationary sentence.

If the coalition is successful, federal funds could help provide legal representation for immigrants, Campanelli said. She thinks having more lawyers in immigration courtrooms could eventually lead to more reforms about how the courts operate. For example, she thinks immigrants should see an immigration judge in person not just through a video, which is how some proceedings had taken place even before the pandemic.

Locally, Campanelli is hoping either state or county legislation can expand her jurisdiction as public defender to also represent Cook County residents in immigration court.

The coalition’s other points include: reversing Trump-era immigration policies, ending immigration detention, ending a jail to deportation pipeline, ending the war on drugs against immigrants, restoring discretion in immigration cases, restoring pathways to gain lawful immigration status and defunding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust. 

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