This article was authored by Kala Fryman. Ms. Fryman is a student at the University of Baltimore School of Law and an active member of the law school’s A2JC Student Engagement Committee. The Student Engagement Committee is excited to plan and engage in another another year of Alternative Spring Break at UB Law where students will volunteer their time during Spring Break to advance access to justice in MD! For more information on Student Engagement, contact Reena Shah at email@example.com.
If you are a U.S. citizen (naturalized or born in the United States), try to imagine the following scenarios. Imagine that you are in a foreign country and may or may not have legal status in that country. Maybe you’ve only just arrived, or you’ve lived there for many years and have established roots in that country. Maybe you are a minor child and are seeking to reunite with the rest of your family or a parent. Maybe your children and family members are citizens of that country and have never lived elsewhere. Maybe you own a business or property in that country. Maybe you went to that country seeking asylum due to fear of persecution. Maybe you just wanted more opportunities. Now imagine that you are facing deportation in that country and are not only precluded from the right to appointed counsel, but are also otherwise unable to retain an attorney due to factors such as lack of resources, finances, language and cultural barriers, etc. You are now faced with navigating the legal system of a foreign country on your own and the outcome could alter the course of the rest of your life.
This is the reality of many individuals and families in immigration removal proceedings in the United States. Unrepresented individuals run the gamut of asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors and even lawful permanent residents– all facing deportation or removal and forced to face the nebulous process of navigating the immigration system alone. According to data from 2007-2012, only 5% of individuals representing themselves in immigration court were successful in winning relief from deportation. (1) The lack of appointed counsel in immigration proceedings has resulted in mass deportations, even when forms of relief may have been possible with the aid and expertise of counsel. As expressed by the Vera Institute’s toolkit on universal representation, the right to appointed counsel, which the U.S. Supreme Court describes as “necessary to insure fundamental human rights of life and liberty,” has thus far only been applied in criminal proceedings- yet the complexities of immigration law and the severe consequences at stake make it unjust and unreasonable to expect individuals to represent themselves in immigration court. (2) Detained immigrants face even more obstacles in securing representation and 70% of detained immigrants are unable to secure counsel. (3) Detention centers are typically located in remote areas where there are not many attorneys available in general, least of all those equipped to handle immigration cases. Additionally, internet and telephone access are restricted and very expensive in detention centers, which presents additional logistic difficulties for detained individuals to obtain documents from their home country or even research removal defense options for their case. (4)
To address this issue and lack of representation, many jurisdictions across the United States have created legal defense funds with the goal to assist immigrants in securing counsel for immigration proceedings. The Vera Institute for Justice’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone includes 12 cities and counties in eight states — California, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia and Maryland and is steadily growing. (5) Fairfax County, Virginia is one of the latest counties to create a legal defense fund and began with $200,000 earlier this year. (6) In Maryland, there are currently active legal defense funds for immigrants in Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County. Safe City Baltimore was created in 2017 in the wake of President Trump’s executive order ramping up ICE raids. The Safe City Baltimore Fund was established by the Open Society Institute Baltimore (OSI) in partnership with the Baltimore City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MIMA) and the Vera Institute. (7) Prince George’s County and Montgomery County also have some of the largest budgets for immigrant defense funds in the region. (8)
The impetus for legal defense funds is simple– with so much at stake for individuals and families, the process should be fair. Due process is a key pillar in the American justice system and should apply to everyone on American soil, regardless of immigration status. The Access to Justice Commission is committed to expanding legal defense funds for immigrants throughout Maryland and ensuring that they continue to operate and serve those in need.
3. Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), “Who Is Represented in Immigration Court?” figure 1, October 16, 2017, https://perma.cc/HPX7-GPF6.