Press Release

Gillibrand, McEachin, Lofgren Unveil Legislation To Guarantee Legal Counsel For Children, People With Disabilities, And Other Eligible Groups During Immigration Court Proceedings

Aug 2, 2019

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), U.S. Representative A. Donald McEachin (D-VA-04), and U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA-19) today unveiled legislation to guarantee legal counsel for eligible individuals navigating the nation’s complex immigration court system. With many of the individuals currently held in the nation’s immigration detention system claiming asylum and other legal protections, the Funding Attorneys for Indigent Removal (FAIR) Proceedings Act would ensure that children, individuals with disabilities, victims of abuse, torture, and violence, and individuals at or below 200% of the federal poverty level can have an attorney during court proceedings.

“The Trump administration has shown that it is far too willing to fast-track deportation cases even when people have credible claims to asylum. Many of these individuals – some of them unaccompanied minors – have fled life-threatening conditions in their home countries and made the dangerous journey to seek refuge in the United States, only to get trapped in a complex legal system without access to a lawyer. With hundreds of thousands of cases backlogged in our immigration courts and tens of thousands locked up in immigrant detention, it’s clear that the current process is not working,” said Senator Gillibrand. “My FAIR Proceedings Act would ensure that some of the most vulnerable individuals in this process can be represented by an attorney. This would not only guarantee a more humane way to process asylum claims and other legal protections, but it would improve the efficiency of our immigration courts and help our country do a much better job of managing our immigration system.”

“Access to an attorney during such a critical hearing should not be a privilege, certainly not for children, victims of abuse or violence, those unable to afford a lawyer, and other vulnerable populations,” said Congressman A. Donald McEachin. “As our country experiences a humanitarian crisis at our border, I am reintroducing this legislation with Chairwoman Lofgren and Senator Gillibrand to protect the due process rights of those in need and help reduce case backlog. We must do more to strengthen our immigration laws and judicial system.”

“Immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks once said that immigration proceedings are like ‘death penalty cases heard in traffic court settings.’ This is particularly true for asylum seekers, children and other vulnerable populations.  Ensuring counsel for immigrant children and particularly vulnerable individuals, as this bill provides, would help reduce the immigration court backlog, save the government money and guarantee that the due process rights of children are protected,” said Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren.

Over the past several years, the southern border has seen an influx of migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Individuals who claim asylum must prove that they have a credible fear of persecution in their home country before an immigration court, however they are not currently guaranteed legal representation. One study shows that without counsel, only 4 percent of detained, unrepresented immigrants avoid deportation, but providing public defenders can improve a migrant’s chance of a successful outcome in their case and remaining in the United States by as much as 1,000 percent.

The FAIR Proceedings Act would help provide much-needed legal counsel to disadvantaged groups seeking asylum. Additionally, providing legal counsel for vulnerable immigrant groups could help reduce the immigration court backlog while saving the government money. According to one economic study calculating the cost-benefit analysis of providing counsel to all individuals facing removal—a broader group than what this bill includes—the savings provided by reductions in detention center spending, foster care, and transportation would pay for almost the entire cost of providing counsel to these immigrants.

Specifically, the FAIR Proceedings Act would do the following:

  • Require government-guaranteed legal counsel during removal proceedings for children, individuals with disabilities, victims of abuse, torture, and violence, and those at or below 200% of the federal poverty level;
  • Require legal orientation programs for all detained individuals at immigration facilities; and
  • Authorize necessary funding for implementing these policies.

This bill is modeled off of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the first government-funded universal representation project in the U.S. for detained immigrants facing deportation.

The FAIR Proceedings Act is cosponsored in the Senate by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Bernard Sanders (I-VT).

The bill has also been endorsed by the American Association for Justice (AAJ), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), National Immigration Justice Center (NIJC), and National Immigration Law Center (NILC).