Legal representation in immigration court can mean the difference between someone being allowed to remain home, safely in the United States, or being permanently torn from their family, deported and placed in harm's way.
It can mean access to interpreters in a person's correct language and dialect so they can fully express their experiences, trauma, and fear. It can mean access to the mental health services and diagnosis necessary to support their wellbeing and their immigration case. Most importantly, it can mean the realization of a right that everyone should be guaranteed: the right to a fair trial.
Instead, most non-citizens in immigration court proceedings are left to navigate the system, commonly referred to as second in complexity only to the U.S. Tax Code, completely alone. That includes children, sometimes very young children. The U.S. immigration court system, unlike our criminal legal system, does not provide court-appointed counsel to immigrants facing deportation who are unable to afford a lawyer. Only 37% of all immigrants and 14% of detained immigrants are represented by attorneys in immigration court, according to a 2016 American Immigration Council study.
Most importantly, immigrants with legal representation are far more likely to be released from detention and succeed in their removal defenses than unrepresented people. According to an AIC study, 63% of non-detained represented immigrants were granted relief in immigration court, while only 13% of unrepresented immigrants were. And tellingly, people appearing before the Portland Immigration Court without legal representation are nearly five-and-a-half times more likely to lose their cases and be deported than those who have an attorney.
As a retired immigration judge and former attorney advisor in the Portland Immigration Court, we have seen these struggles firsthand. We know the trauma that our immigration system inflicts on people, often with an existing history of trauma. And we know that legal representation can lessen the trauma of navigating this virtually incomprehensible system.
But most importantly, we know that legal representation can help avoid the ultimate trauma of deportation. The lack of legal representation for people in the immigration court system, which decides "death penalty cases in a traffic court setting," is unsustainable not only for the vulnerable members of our community who are subject to its whims, but for those who work in it as well.
Our immigration legal system should be based on facts, law, and justice, not access to wealth and resources. If passed, House Bill 3230 will allow our immigrant community members to exercise their full right to due process under the law and provide access to legal representation. Oregon could be a national leader in ensuring immigrant rights by providing access to counsel.
Please join us in supporting HB 3230 to make this vision of Oregon a reality.
The Honorable Andrea Sloan is a retired Portland Immigration Court judge. Leni Tupper is a former attorney adviser in the Portland Immigration Court, and current co-director of Portland Community College's CLEAR Clinic and co-chair of PCC's Paralegal Program.
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