Immigrants need sanctuary — and lawyers

Ali, a green card holder and father of three young daughters in Baltimore, was driving his friend home when they were pulled over by police in a routine traffic stop. Ali's friend, who was undocumented, had a baggie of marijuana in his possession, and Ali, wanting to save his friend, took the blame. Ali believed his own immigration status would protect him even if convicted of possession. But a year later, he was threatened with deportation. He was arrested and, lacking a lawyer, detained for months, keeping him away from his family. Without a breadwinner, his wife, who was undocumented and unable to work, and children were evicted from their home.

Ali is just one of millions of immigrants in this country detained with no access to a lawyer. Although deportation is one of the most severe legal consequences anyone can face, immigrants have no constitutional right to appointed counsel. This means that unless a person has the resources to hire a lawyer, they appear in court alone and have to represent themselves. With little understanding of the complexities of immigration law, many immigrants end up losing their cases.

A recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy shows just how many are affected. The report found that at the Baltimore Immigration Court, which covers all immigrants detained in Maryland, immigrants without representation were only able to win their cases an abysmal 7 percent of the time. Only 19 percent even have a lawyer. This means more than four in five immigrants go to court alone against trained government attorneys and try to convince an immigration judge that they deserve to stay. Without counsel, the odds are stacked against them.

There is a better way, one badly needed today as the president moves to implement a series of constitutionally questionable executive orders that would vastly expand the number of people targeted for deportation. In recent weeks, communities have reported immigration raids at private homes, hospitals, homeless shelters and even court hearings for domestic violence victims.

Other cities have created access to counsel programs that provide detained immigrants who lack the funds for a lawyer with pro bono attorneys, similar to a "public defender" program. These programs have been a stunning success. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIUFP), for example, has increased immigrants' chances of winning their cases by 1,000 percent. These statistics prove that many people accused of violating immigration laws actually have a way to win their cases and stay in the US — if only someone could help them navigate immigration laws

NYIUFP's immediate impact has inspired other cities with substantial immigrant populations to take action. The California cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland are piloting similar programs. Smaller cities like Philadelphia and Boston are also proposing access to counsel programs.

It is time for Maryland to step up for its immigrants and embrace meaningful access to counsel for those who contribute so much to our communities. Of the almost 6 million people living in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area, 22 percent of the population is foreign-born, and over half of that group, 53 percent, are not U.S. citizens. This population, hailing from more than 200 countries, includes students pursuing university degrees, highly skilled employees in the tech industry and business owners. It includes people who prepare food in our favorite restaurants, truck our produce over miles of highway and magically clean our offices when we go home at night — the less visible jobs essential to maintaining our own lifestyles.

In addition to the moral need, such a program also makes fiscal sense. In the Baltimore metro area alone more than 20 percent of business owners are foreign-born. Every year, Maryland employers lose an estimated $5.9 million from the costs of turnover as they are forced to replace detained or deported employees. The state of Maryland also spends nearly $900,000 annually to take care of children whose parents are detained or deported. These costs are an unnecessary and inefficient use of taxpayer dollars and are preventable. Family and community unity leads to a robust economy and social stability — in Maryland and elsewhere.

Ali's story, unlike many others I have seen, had a happy ending. With the help of our staff attorneys and pro bono partners, he was able to secure free representation for his case and eventually won release. Many others are not so lucky. Maryland can do better — and help lead the way across the country. We can no longer sit idly by as immigrant families in Maryland are targeted. Now is the time to stand up for immigrants with a comprehensive access to counsel program that gives them a true chance to fight back.

Claudia Cubas (claudia.cubas@caircoalition.org) is senior program director at the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition.

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