Dallas municipal authorities are set to foot the bill for attorneys to represent undocumented residents facing deportation proceedings. The city will join a growing number of local actors and independent philanthropists working to combat the lack of legal representation for immigrants, a widespread phenomenon that many say is in large part responsible for an ever-burdensome immigration court backlog.
The Dallas City Council has approved $100,000 in funds for the city's Civil Legal Immigration Services initiative to distribute to non-profit organizations for legal services for undocumented residents facing immigration court proceedings, local news reported late last week. The Vera Institute of Justice, an advocacy group, matched the amount, bringing the Legal Services Defense fund total to $200,000, City of Dallas spokeswoman Roxana Rubio says.
There are presently about 8,000 people living in Dallas facing immigration proceedings without legal representation, Rubio says. "These funds will be used to reach as many people as possible," she adds.
Dallas joins the scores of cities, including Los Angeles and Baltimore, that have allocated funds to defend undocumented community members in immigration court since the onset of Donald Trump's presidency. Immigrants facing deportation proceedings are not eligible for court-appointed attorneys. "Immigration court proceedings are considered civil proceedings. Therefore, there is no Sixth Amendment right to appointed counsel," explains Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. "There are some exceptions but the general rule is that the person has a right to counsel at no expense to the government."
Tabaddor adds that NAIJ "has not taken any position regarding government appointed counsel. However, we have stated that the absence of competent counsel for pro se litigants certainly presents a challenge to the role of a judge and often introduces delay in the proceedings."
In 2013, the Senate passed an immigration reform bill that would have funded attorneys for children facing deportation proceedings; the House never took it up. Congressional Republicans said that their immigration reform would focus more squarely on border control and national security concerns.
Few immigrants facing deportation proceedings are able to hire their own legal representation: Just 37 percent of all removal case defendants nationwide had lawyers, according to research from 2016 by the American Immigration Council, an advocacy organization. In the Southeast, the lack of representation is especially dire: Just one in six detained immigrants facing removal proceedings has access to an attorney there, says Willemijn Keizer, director of institutional giving at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"For an immigrant in detention, that legal representation can mean the difference between winning or losing their case—between staying with their family or being forced to return to a place that is no longer home," Keizer says.
Immigrants with representation were more than twice as likely as unrepresented counterparts to receive the immigration relief they sought, American Immigration Council research showed in 2016.
In addition to the pro-bono work of immigration attorneys across the nation, some private philanthropists are endeavoring to offer immigrants what the federal government will not. Rapper 21 Savage, whom Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained earlier this year on allegations that he was in the country without authorization, made headlines this month when he donated $25,000 to the SPLC to secure legal representation for immigrants facing deportation.
21 Savage's attorney, Charles H. Kuck, says that, despite his client's philanthropy, the responsibility of ensuring that immigration court defendants have representation and a fair day in court should be on the government.
"It is quite clear that the current immigration detention system is set up to deprive individuals of their right to counsel," Kuck says. "Since the government is setting up detention centers and camps in remote locations far from attorneys, it seems that the government should also be responsible for ensuring that each individual has legal counsel. Saying one has a 'right to counsel' and then not making that right feasible or even possible makes a mockery of the Constitution we purport to support."
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
In April of 2018, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered that the Executive Office for Immigration Review halt the Legal Orientation Program, in which the government funds not an attorney but legal guidance and often referrals to pro-bono representation for immigrants. Following overwhelming pushback, the program was continued pending review. Experts including Tabaddor were bewildered by the administration's push to halt the program. Legal guidance through the LOP had helped to expedite cases, cutting "down the amount of time the judge has to spend explaining things and answering questions," Tabaddor said at the time.
The administration has pledged to slash the ever-growing immigration court backlog—908,552 cases are pending, according to data compiled by Syracuse University data research center the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. When the administration endeavored to slash the little existing legal counsel the federal government offers to people facing immigration court proceedings—and in countless subsequent instances—it was not immediately clear whether the administration had ever intended in earnest to slash the backlog. In April, Trump suggested to reporters that he "get rid" of the entire asylum system and immigration court judges in order to clear the backlog, but legal experts say he does not have the power to do so.
Meanwhile, concerned communities in the United States will try to foot the bill for legal assistance. Keizer says that 21 Savage's donation, for instance, "will provide vital resources for detained immigrants in the Deep South who do not have the means for legal representation on their own."