Press Releases

June 08, 2016

As DHS Threatens New Raids, Coalition Urges Universal Legal Representation for Detained Immigrants in California

June 8, 2016 -- Immigrants detained in California who have an attorney succeed in their cases more than five times as often as those who don't, according to a new study released today.

The study also found that nearly 70 percent of those who are detained go unrepresented in their deportation cases, often because they cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants are not entitled to court appointed attorneys even though a deportation order can often result in life or death consequences for those forced to return to countries beset by drug cartels and gang violence.

The study, authored by the newly formed California Coalition for Universal Representation, coincides with a campaign to urge California's state and local governments to create publicly-funded programs to provide counsel to detained immigrants in deportation proceedings who cannot otherwise afford an attorney. The proposal is modeled after a program instituted by New York City, which began as a pilot in 2013 and expanded to full coverage for all detained immigrants the following year. The campaign will kick off with a public event at Loyola Law School Wednesday evening at 6-8 p.m, featuring a panel of guest speakers, including community members directly affected by detention.

"The stakes of these proceedings can be literally life and death. In the face of DHS's threatened raids, and as thousands seek refuge from Central America's violence, legal representation is more crucial than ever," said Caitlin Bellis, Attorney and Liman Fellow at Public Counsel.

The tragic case of Erick Naum Castro Peña illustrates the potential consequences of immigration proceedings. Erick fled Honduras after gang members murdered his father, a human rights activist. After seeking asylum in the United States, Erick spent 11 months detained, never met a lawyer, and was ultimately deported back to Honduras, where he was murdered soon after by the same gangs who killed his father and threatened him. "I want justice for my son," says his mother, Clara Lilian Peña, a San Fernando Valley resident, "and I do not want anyone else to have to suffer what he suffered for seeking sanctuary." 

In addition to the risks faced by asylum seekers, the new report shows that thousands of California children are at risk of being placed in foster care upon the detention or deportation of a parent; many others endure trauma with long-term health consequences, leading to poorer educational and health outcomes.  Moreover, immigration-related arrests cause household income to fall to half on average, and leave many households without anyone earning wages. As a result, loved ones go hungry and struggle to remain in their homes. 

"Deportations are dividing families and destroying communities. Too often people are at a loss to navigate a system which often confounds even the experts," said Emi MacLean, Attorney at National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "Providing counsel will alleviate human suffering, keep California children out of foster care, and improve health and educational outcomes." 

"The reports are in from New York City's program, and they're clear:  universal representation is a dramatic success," said Stacey Strongarone, Deputy Director of the Center on Immigration and Justice of the Vera Institute of Justice, which administers the New York program.

"The federal government will not act, but California can follow New York City's example and provide counsel to all detained immigrants who cannot afford a lawyer," concluded Shiu-Ming Cheer, Senior Staff Attorney and Field Coordinator for the National Immigration Law Center.

View the full report here.

The California Coalition for Universal Representation includes the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the Central American Resource Center, the California Immigrant Policy Center, the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, the Center for Popular Democracy, Centro Legal de la Raza, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the Immigrant Youth Coalition, Interfaith Communities for Peace and Justice, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, the National Immigration Law Center, Pangea Legal Services, Public Counsel, the Stanford Law School Immigrants' Rights Clinic, and the Vera Institute of Justice.