In a country where we’re used to the idea that criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer are entitled to one at government expense, people are often surprised to hear that noncitizens placed into deportation (removal) proceedings don’t have the same basic due process rights. The Immigration and Nationality Act says that noncitizens in removal proceedings may be represented by counsel, but at no expense to the government.
It’s certainly not that noncitizens don’t need representation — Department of Justice statistics show that an average of half the people in removal proceedings don’t have a lawyer. The exact figure was 56% for the year 2012.
And given that even a spokesperson for the immigration bureaucracy once said, “Immigration law is a mystery and a mastery of obfuscation, and the lawyers who can figure it out are worth their weight in gold,” (Immigration (INS) spokeswoman Karen Kraushaar, quoted by the Washington Post on April 24, 2001), it would be absurd to presume that these immigrants don’t need legal help.
For anyone who might argue that people in removal proceedings deserve to leave the U.S. anyway, take note of studies such as that done in March, 2012 by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group, showing that 40% of unaccompanied noncitizen children might qualify for statuses that would exempt them from deportation.
The law on representation for noncitizens is at last, however, evolving. In a federal court decision called Franco-Gonzalez v. Holder, the judge ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Attorney General, and the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) to provide legal representation to immigrant detainees with mental disabilities who are facing deportation.
The case concerned a green card applicant who had an I.Q. below 55 and the cognitive abilities of a young child, but who had been arrested after getting into the middle of a fight between rival gangs. While the immigration judge found him incompetent to face proceedings, the lack of a right to free representation put him into legal limbo, and he sat in detention for nearly five years.
This right to counsel is obviously quite limited, and will take some time to fully implement. However, if you know someone facing deportation, or in detention, who has limited mental abilities, get in touch with an immigration lawyer or a nonprofit charitable organization serving immigrants.