Imagine being ripped from your home or workplace, arrested, thrown in jail and charged under laws so complex they’ve been compared to the tax code.
And you have to face those charges without a lawyer.
That could be the scenario for millions of immigrants under President Trump’s deportation plans. Political leaders in California have refused to permit the use of state and local resources to aid federal immigration agents in deportation actions. But that’s not enough for people who are swept up, caught in the deportation machine, and can’t afford an attorney.
Our immigration system pits unrepresented immigrants against trained federal prosecutors. Navigating the legal maze alone is hard enough, but even more difficult for detained immigrants, who are imprisoned far from their families, deprived of internet access and even affordable phone calls. Not surprisingly, having an immigration lawyer multiplies a person’s chance of winning a deportation case by a factor of 10.
Some elected officials have promised to provide critical funds for deportation defense. Sadly, they have begun caving to political pressure by refusing to make the programs universal.
For example, local politicians are seeking to alter plans for the L.A. Justice Fund, which seeks to ensure that Angelenos have access to effective legal representation to fight their deportation cases. Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he envisions the Justice Fund being used for “good and law-abiding immigrants.” Accordingly, many Angelenos with prior criminal histories, despite being deemed rehabilitated by the state of California, will nonetheless be denied access to an attorney.
It’s a terrible mistake, on many levels, to limit the program in this way. Protecting people from arbitrary decisions by the government is a linchpin of our legal, political and moral systems. Liberty and justice “for all” means that we do not dole out fairness only to those deemed deserving of it. Justice knows no carve-outs.
Denying basic due process to people convicted of crimes also sounds eerily familiar to other policies supported by President Trump. He has advocated measures that rely on racist and xenophobic rhetoric to criminalize our immigrant communities.
The L.A. Justice Fund stands in stark contrast to what New York City is doing. Through its Immigrant Family Unity Project, NYC provides lawyers to low-income people in immigration detention. The program has been successful in part because of its universality. Attorneys are not required to conduct a resource-intensive intake before taking on clients. They therefore don’t have to spend time engaging in record checks or other delay- and cost-inducing complications.
Those supporting the carve-out in the Justice Fund make an argument about resources. While it is fair to be concerned about how best to use limited funds, it is in fact more expensive and time-consuming to require an intake process than to simply take on all cases. It will reduce the program’s efficiency and ultimately result in fewer people being served.
We need our elected officials to make the same commitment and demonstrate strong leadership that sees the inherent humanity, dignity and rights of every person. The L.A. Justice Fund should make sure everyone facing detention and exile has a fair shot at fighting their case. Tragically, if our elected officials yield to political pressure, it won’t.
Hector Villagra is the executive director at the ACLU of Southern California. Lindsay Toczylowski is the executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.