Illinois Lawmakers Want To Explore Providing Legal Help To Immigrants Facing Deportation

deportation sign
In this 2019 file photo, a poster next to paper butterflies representing people deported decorates the office of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, in Lumpkin, Ga., as staff attorney Erin Argueta combs through paperwork. In Illinois, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would create a task force to explore the feasibility of providing legal representation to immigrants facing deportation. David Goldman / Associated Press
deportation sign
In this 2019 file photo, a poster next to paper butterflies representing people deported decorates the office of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, in Lumpkin, Ga., as staff attorney Erin Argueta combs through paperwork. In Illinois, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would create a task force to explore the feasibility of providing legal representation to immigrants facing deportation. David Goldman / Associated Press

Illinois Lawmakers Want To Explore Providing Legal Help To Immigrants Facing Deportation

State lawmakers in both legislative chambers have proposed measures that would create a task force to investigate the feasibility of providing legal representation to Illinois immigrants facing deportation.

If approved, the task force will spend a year exploring the details of providing such services and how much they would cost. The task force would provide recommendations by July 2022.

The country’s civil immigration system does not provide court-appointed counsel to immigrants facing removal. In Illinois, 43% of the immigrants facing deportation don’t have a lawyer, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a group at Syracuse University.

“Immigration proceedings are civil in nature. Removal proceedings present exceedingly high stakes: the potential loss of homes and livelihood; permanent separation from U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident family members; banishment of a family’s sole breadwinner or even persecution, torture or death,” said State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview), who introduced the bill in the Illinois House of Representatives to create the task force.

Immigration law is as complex as this country’s tax law. Immigration judges try to provide guidance to immigrants unfamiliar with the system, but it’s difficult.

“In essence, we’re doing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting,” said immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks during an interview with PBS in 2017.

Marks said the immigration court system is overwhelmed by its volume of cases. In the immigration court in Chicago, it can take up to 1,039 days for a case to reach a final decision, according to the latest data.

“We know we have a broken immigration system. We should begin this conversation,” said State Sen. Celina Villanueva (D-Chicago), who introduced the bill in the Illinois State Senate. “[Undocumented immigrants are] part of the lifeblood of our communities, of our neighborhoods of our families. We owe it to them.”

Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, one deportation can have a ripple effect on entire communities.

“More than two thirds of undoucmented immigrants live in mixed status families. If you deport an undocumented immigrant you’re disrupting a family of U.S. citizens,” Tsao said.

Tsao said detained immigrants who have a lawyer are 11 times more likely to win the removal case against them.

Immigrant rights groups have been advocating for legal representation for years. In 2018, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched the Legal Protection Fund. The following year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot increased funding for the program by 20 percent, to a total of $1.3 million, and again this year, to $1.5 million.

Under that program, the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) provided legal representation in more than 1,660 cases during the first nine months of 2020, according to its annual report.

“The program was designed to educate immigrant communities about immigration law and risk of deportation and connects people to legal services,” said Karrie Talbert, associate director of legal services with NIJC. “The program has allowed families to stay together and communities to stay together. It’s given many immigrants stability.”

Last October, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announced that the county allocated an additional $350,000 to the public defender’s office to create an immigration unit.

The unit will provide legal guidance for immigrants facing criminal cases so that they understand the consequences a guilty plea could have on their immigration status. In some cases, legal permanent residents can be deported, if they plead guilty to some felonies. In the past, some public defenders and defense attorneys haven’t explained the consequences of a guilty plea.

The public defender immigration unit was created in an effort to comply with a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The Padilla v. Kentucky case established that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel includes a criminal defendant’s right to be counseled on how their criminal cases might impact the defendant’s immigration status.

If Illinois lawmakers approve legislation to create a task force, that group will likely look to New York for guidance on how to provide legal representation to immigrants facing deportation.

In 2013, the New York City Council created a pilot program to provide legal representation to detained immigrants. Four years later, the state allocated $11 million to expand the program statewide, calling it the Liberty Defense Project.

“It’s the first and the largest program that provides deportation defense to people in detention, and it’s been a model for others nationwide,” said Annie Chen, program director for the Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Initiative at Vera Institute.

SAFE is a collaboration that includes governments, immigration legal service providers, and advocates who are working as part of a movement for universal representation for all immigrants facing deportation.

Chen said it’s important to help immigrant communities fight deportations.

“These are our neighbors.” she said. “Providing deportation defense to people really also stabilizes communities and economies.”

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.