Fair Legal Representation for the Undocumented

State and local elected officials and candidates for public office in next year’s elections must advocate to create a network of legal representation services for undocumented detainees who face deportation.

This recommendation comes from a report prepared by the Immigrant Representation Study Group, a team of immigration law experts organized by federal Judge Robert A. Katzmann. The report explores the vacuum in the justice systems of cities with a large immigrant presence. It points out the fact that a significant number of those entering the judicial system are denied the basic right to due process and legal representation.

The study found that 60% of undocumented detainees do not have an attorney to help them appeal their deportation, although many have legitimate reasons for this appeal. The vast majority represent themselves against experienced prosecutors, despite their limited English proficiency and knowledge of the law. If they had an attorney like everyone else, they could prevent removal.

The notion of providing public legal assistance to undocumented respondents goes beyond the aspiration for the judicial system to be fair and color-blind for all—instead of a two-class system, where one group of respondents is subjected to inferior standards of justice. This very idea is good public policy.

Undocumented detainees, the study shows, tend to be the primary breadwinners, and once they’re deported, they leave their wives and children behind—with no choice other than turning to the costly public safety net.

If NYC adopts the recommendation to fund a network to provide legal representation to qualified undocumented immigrants, it would become the country’s first jurisdiction to create this type of legal program—a suitable title for a city that prides itself in being a stronghold for immigrants.

Municipal elected officials, including district attorneys, still have time before the 2013 elections to take this recommendation to heart and do something about it. Supporting this initiative during their campaign will help mayoral candidates, all Democrats or former Democrats seeking the Latino vote, differentiate themselves. We hope they’re paying attention.