Cook County program providing legal help for immigrants starts taking cases

In Chicago, there are more than 110,000 pending cases in immigration court, including more than 56,000 cases where people aren’t represented by an attorney, according to a data analysis from Syracuse University.

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Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell speaks during a news conference Monday morning at the County Building in the Loop to announce that the public defender’s office will begin representing immigrants in deportation proceedings.

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell talks about his office representing immigrants in deportation proceedings.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Cook County public defenders have represented about a dozen people facing deportation proceedings in the first two months of a new program aimed at expanding free legal services to immigrants, officials announced Monday.

The program, called the Immigration Unit Pilot, has been in the works since 2020 when the Cook County Board allocated money for the public defender’s office to provide legal services to immigrants facing deportation. In late February, the unit — which includes two staff attorneys, a supervising attorney and a paralegal — started taking on cases of those facing deportation proceedings in Chicago’s immigration court.

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“We’re excited that we are at the place where we’re at now where we are nearly fully staffed,” said Sharone Mitchell Jr., the Cook County public defender, who added he will continue to ask for funding for the unit. “We plan on, if things go well, continuing our commitment to the immigration unit and expanding it. It was a bit slow, but I think we are speeding up now.”

Across the country, immigration advocates in recent years have pushed for federal funding to provide legal representation for immigrants in deportation proceedings who are unable to hire an attorney.

In Chicago, there are more than 110,000 pending cases in immigration court, including more than 56,000 cases where people aren’t represented by an attorney, according to a data analysis from Syracuse University.

Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya speaks during a news conference Monday morning at the County Building in the Loop to announce that the Cook County public defender’s office will begin representing immigrants in deportation proceedings.

Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya helped research similar legal programs to help immigrants.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya said she and others had traveled to San Francisco to learn about a similar program before pushing for Cook County to provide legal representation for immigrants.

“After years of advocacy, the immigration unit in Cook County’s public defender’s office is taking cases now,” Anaya said Monday during a news conference. “So we’re going to court, and we’re following through to make sure that immigrants have due process.”

The unit has so far handled cases involving people seeking asylum and others involving immigrants who have lived in the Chicago area for years and are now facing deportation, said Guadalupe Perez, one of the unit’s attorneys.

Four of the people they represented have been released from immigration custody pending the outcome of their cases, Perez said.

“We’re very pleased with the early results that we’re seeing,” Perez said.

In February, immigration detention ended in Illinois because of changes in state law, but immigrants with cases in Chicago’s immigration court can still be detained in jails and centers outside the state.

The people the unit represents have ties to Cook County, were previously or currently represented by county public defenders in another legal matter or are unable to hire an attorney for financial reasons, Perez said.

Attorneys from the unit have also started going to immigration court in Chicago once a week to identify people who need legal representation as part of a collaboration with the Midwest Immigrant Defenders Alliance.

The alliance includes the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Resurrection Project and the Immigration Project, which are organizations that had already provided legal services for immigrants. Together, the organizations are starting a pilot program this month that will be similar to the efforts of the Cook County public defender’s office.

The group is providing legal help to anyone who is in deportation proceedings in the immigration court in Chicago, even if the person lives in a different state, said Diana Rashid, a managing attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center’s detention project.

“If universal representation in the Midwest is to become a reality, we need to increase the capacity of organizations to provide these critical services,” Rashid said.

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

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell speaks during a news conference Monday morning at the County Building in the Loop to announce that the public defender’s office will begin representing immigrants in deportation proceedings.

Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr. said he’s pleased with the early work of the immigrant unit and plans to expand the program.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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