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Local Governments Help Ensure Illegal Immigrants Get Free Legal Aid

Sarah Gozalo, center left, and Marisa Lohse, center right, of the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC review the Application for Asylum of Joselin Marroquin-Torres, left, before her appearance in federal immigration court in New York on April 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Poor illegal immigrants facing deportation in Baltimore, and 10 other cities and counties, will have government-paid attorneys at their sides as a new Vera Institute of Justice program – the SAFE Cities Network – aims to ensure they have the best legal aid taxpayer money can buy.

“Our community is safest when our neighbors trust their officials and institutions and know they will be treated justly and with dignity,” said Mayor Catherine Pugh. “Providing legal representation to those facing deportation maintains trust in law enforcement and our local institutions and keeps us all safe. If our residents don’t feel safe – for example, coming forward to report crimes and cooperating with law enforcement – all of us are at more risk.”

Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said Pugh is just wrong. He said no American citizen has a right to legal representation, at public expense, in a civil matter such as an IRS tax hearing or a deportation hearing, and neither does any illegal alien.

“The guarantee (of legal representation) is for criminal cases,” Mehlman told PJM. “Whether you are facing ICE or the IRS, that simply isn’t the case.”

However, Dan Kesselbrenner, executive director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told the Huffington Post an attorney for the defense of every illegal immigrant who is going up against a government lawyer should be mandatory.

“Even people with valid claims get intimidated by the process,” Kesselbrenner said.

Mehlman pointed out the same would be true for any American citizen facing the government lawyers employed by the IRS in a tax hearing, which is also considered to be a civil matter at which an attorney for the defense is not guaranteed.

“Otherwise, the expense to the public would be so burdensome that the whole system would probably collapse,” said Mehlman.

There should be no lack of illegal immigrants facing deportation who need a mouthpiece. A Reuters analysis found a 17 percent increase this year in the arrests of illegal immigrants with criminal convictions on their records. The Reuters study also reported a boost of more than 200 percent in the arrests of those without criminal records.

“Immigrants are our friends, neighbors, and co-workers, but new enforcement tactics are breaking up families and weakening our neighborhoods and our city,” said Elizabeth Brown, a city council member in Columbus, Ohio, another city on the Vera Institute list.

But the idea of using government funds to pay for their attorneys is abhorrent to Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies.

She told the Huffington Post immigration defense funds are an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

“It’s hard for me to see what the public interest is in prolonging the deportation process,” Vaughan said. “They don’t have to go to immigration court. They can go home.”

Baltimore isn’t alone in its public effort to help illegal immigrants pay for attorneys. The Vera Institute of Justice’s SAFE Cities Network is going to help Baltimore and 10 other cities and counties by providing “technical expertise and support,” which will include helping train more legal professionals to help fight deportation orders.

“The constitutional guarantee of due process applies to people residing in the U.S., including immigrants. Before we separate parents and children, before we remove someone who is a hard-working and valued member of our community, we must respect their rights,” said Oren Root, Vera’s immigration and justice center director.

The SAFE Cities Network will also provide some matching funds for governments, like Baltimore, that already have programs in place to help pay for illegal immigrants’ attorneys.

“Not only does such public funding for indigent immigrants facing deportation maintain trust within our communities, it ultimately increases public safety and keeps deserving families together,” said Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice.

In fact, a Vera Institute of Justice study of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the first in America to offer a public defender system for poor illegal immigrants facing deportation, drastically increased the chance that those people in the country illegally would remain in America.

“Vera has projected that 48 percent of cases will end successfully for NYIFUP clients. This is a 1,100 percent increase from the 4 percent success rate for unrepresented cases at Varick Street before NYIFUP,” the study found.

The SAFE Cities Network is also going to help Chicago in its quest to find and pay for illegal immigrants’ attorneys. The assistance comes on top of Chicago’s Legal Defense Fund, which was approved in 2016 to pay illegal aliens’ legal bills.

The Legal Defense Fund uses $1.3 million in city money to pay for immigrants’ legal aid so they can avoid deportation.

Alderman Nick Sposato was the only vote against the Legal Defense Fund.

“We’re defending people that are breaking our laws,” said Sposato.

Sposato told the Chicago Tribune he would rather see city funds go toward public safety, mental health issues or retired city employees who have no insurance.

“The bottom line is we have a process here. To jump in front of the line before other people, I just don’t think it’s right,” Sposato said.

Mehlman said he considers it ironic that many of the communities that want to guarantee a public defender for every illegal immigrant are the same cities and counties that have trouble providing for the basic needs of their residents.

He said those who are working to provide free legal assistance for illegal aliens are “politically and ideologically driven” by their opposition to Trump administration immigration policy.

“They’ve just gone over the edge,” said Mehlman. “You have local politicians who are basically throwing a tantrum over the fact that what we are doing now is returning to the status quo prior to the Obama administration.”