The newly launched Fairness to Freedom Campaign is a national effort to establish federally funded universal representation
April 26, 2022—Today, the Vera Institute of Justice and the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) launched Fairness to Freedom: The Campaign for Universal Representation to push for federal legislation that establishes a universal right to federally funded legal representation for anyone facing deportation, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what they can afford.
The campaign is supported by a broad coalition of more than 100 immigrants’ rights organizations, legal service providers, and government champions across the United States, including those that have modeled and established their own publicly funded legal representation programs.
“It’s time that every person facing our immigration system has federally funded legal representation, so we can stay true to our nation’s values of due process and access to justice,” said Nicole Melaku, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans. “The current system is not navigable for the vast majority of those facing deportation and results in many people, including those fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in our country and children representing themselves in court. Today’s launch of our joint campaign for federal universal representation marks a milestone for immigrants across the country, and we hope our elected officials will heed our call to provide federally funded legal representation for anyone facing deportation.”
“Detentions, deportations, and family separation continue to wreak havoc in our communities and across the country. And without access to a lawyer, immigrants have little chance of successfully fighting deportation. In the wake of this chaos, local activism has moved forward publicly funded deportation defense in cities, counties, and states over the years, paving the way for a new vision of justice,” said Kica Matos, vice president of initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice. “We are proud to launch the Fairness to Freedom campaign today with NPNA and a broad coalition of partners. It is time for Congress to join us and ensure that due process is truly a right for all.”
There is no public defender system for people in the immigration system. As a result, most people—including those in an estimated 70 percent of detained deportation cases—must navigate the complexities of immigration law alone while facing well-resourced government prosecutors.
The stakes in the immigration system are incredibly high. Losing a case often means family separation and exile from one’s home. Though people in the immigration system may hire their own attorney, they are not guaranteed representation if they cannot afford one. Those who can hire an attorney are also often held in detention facilities far from lawyers and other support services. For the many adults, children, and families who have a legal right to enter or remain in the United States, this is the equivalent of sentencing someone to prison or death without a fair trial.
Having a lawyer makes a staggering difference to the outcome of a case. Studies show that immigrants with attorneys are 3.5 times more likely to be granted bond (enabling release from detention), and people in detention are 10.5 times more likely to obtain relief from deportation than those without representation.
Although universal representation alone is not enough to undo the decades of systemic harm experienced by people in the immigration system, it is clear that without a lawyer, many people who have a right to remain in the United States will instead face deportation and separation from their families and be forced return to conditions they fled seeking safety.
“As federal immigration enforcement and detention continue to bring fear and instability to our communities, legal representation is critical for people fighting to stay home with their families,” said New York State Assemblymember Catalina Cruz. “In New York, we have recognized this for many years as we have led the nation in successful universal representation programs. With so much more to do to build an immigration system that is welcoming and centers human dignity, we are committed to continuing the fight to end the targeting and criminalization of our communities. An essential step in that fight is guaranteeing appointed lawyers who can stand with people facing deportation in this notoriously complicated system. It’s time for the federal government to step up and seize the momentum we have built to guarantee universal representation for all.”
“Everyone facing the potential harsh and devastating consequences of deportation should be guaranteed fair and strong legal representation. In Cook County, Illinois, we just recently built upon many years of local efforts and activism to ensure that our Public Defender’s office can offer representation to immigrants facing deportation, moving us one step closer to advancing fairness and due process in an incredibly complex system,” said Alma Anaya, commissioner of Cook County in Chicago, Illinois. “I’m proud to join other local and state leaders, advocates, community members, and legal service providers to call on the federal government to follow the lead of Cook County and the more than 50 other jurisdictions across the country and ensure federally funded universal representation for all facing deportation.”
“At CASA, our members have fought for decades for comprehensive immigration reform. While that vital struggle continues, we must act urgently to ensure that those caught up in our broken immigration system at least have a fighting chance by ensuring that anyone facing deportation has access to a federally funded, qualified immigration attorney to defend their case,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA. “Access to counsel, especially for those denied their liberty and forced to fight their cases from behind bars, is often the deciding factor in whether one of our members is able to remain in the United States with their community or not. As we continue the campaign to reimagine an immigration system plagued by systemic racism, with a long history of bias against Black and Indigenous immigrants, today we call on Congress to put a down payment on justice and support universal representation for all immigrants facing deportation.”
“I’ve been here 20 years but remain at risk of detention and deportation. I can’t afford a lawyer. That’s why I’ve been fighting with CASA for access to counsel,” said Rafael, a member of CASA. “Now is the time for the federal government to do its job and make our immigration system fairer by ensuring that EVERY immigrant facing deportation has access to a free, qualified attorney to help them defend their case.”
“No one should have to show up before a judge, frightened and confused, without access to a lawyer and left to fend for themselves,” said Oscar Chacón, director of Alianza Americas, a coalition of 55 migrant-led groups in some 14 states. “It’s nearly impossible for those facing deportation to win their case if they don’t have legal counsel. Guaranteeing universal legal representation is critical to make our justice system fair for everyone.”
“The consequences of detention and deportation are detrimental to the well-being of our communities, including the families and workers that kept our nation together during the pandemic. It is vital that elected officials participate in ensuring due process for all and fight for policies that give all immigrants the opportunity to obtain legal defense with no restrictions,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center. “A federal universal representation program has the power to build equity in immigrant communities unjustly targeted by systemic racism. Universal representation is vital to due process in an immigration system that has been broken for far too long.”
“When I met with my attorney Chelsea and she took on my case, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Chelsea helped me understand that deportation is not the only way and that I could fight my case,” said Ramon, an impacted community member represented by the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. “Chelsea understood what was happening, she explained what was going on, and she gave me options. I didn’t feel alone anymore. My family felt peace and my life changed completely when I came home to my kids. My kids love having me back home.”
“When we talk about a system of equitable justice for all, we mean justice where everyone receives fair treatment, especially due process. Sadly, in much of the United States, undocumented and other immigrants are often left behind, forgotten, ignored, and discarded by a system that punishes them with deportation without any chance to be represented by an immigration law professional,” said Angélica Salas, executive director of CHIRLA. “In addition to the cruel enforcement measures that break up families in the thousands on a daily basis, our nation’s immigration justice system is nowhere near being just or fair to our community. This is why we need this campaign, which would build on the work already done in California and a few other states, and we need action by Congress now.”
To learn more about the campaign, visit vera.org/fairness-to-freedom or https://partnershipfornewamericans.org/fairness-to-freedom/
About the Vera Institute of Justice
The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit vera.org.
About the National Partnership for New Americans
The National Partnership for New Americans is a national multiethnic, multiracial organization that represents 49 of the largest regional immigrant and refugee rights organizations in 39 states. Its members provide large-scale services for the communities, to leverage their collective power and expertise for a national strategy.