Public Defenders representing immigrants in criminal and immigration deportation proceedings are calling on the Biden Administration and the new Democratic majority in Congress to take immediate and bold action on behalf of our immigrant community members after four years of turmoil under the outgoing Trump administration.
At a press conference over Zoom on Wednesday, Raha Jorjani, Managing Attorney of the Immigration Representation Unit, Alameda County Public Defenders, announced that front line responders, public defenders, were “joining forces for a concrete guidance for the Biden administration on steps that must be taken to deliver fundamental justice to immigrant communities.”
She noted that as public defenders they “advocate and litigate” on behalf of some of the most marginalized community members in this country.” She said, “We are the first responders called to the daily emergencies of mass incarceration and mass deportation.”
This is a coalition of at least 35 public defender offices from 14 states nationwide that have come together to identify ten steps to ensure justice.
Establish a Moratorium on Deportations for One Year on Day One,
Reverse Trump-Era Anti-Immigrant Policies,
End Immigration Detention,
Establish a Robust and Federally Funded Universal Legal Representation Program
Restructure Immigration Courts and Restore Due Process in Proceedings
End the Jail to Deportation Pipeline
End the War on Drugs Against Immigrants
Restore Discretion and Proportionality
Restore Pathways to Lawful Immigration Status without Criminal Carveouts
Defund ICE and Reinvest in Our Communities
“The reality is we’ve experienced four long years of chaotic and inhumane immigration policies stemming from the highest level of leadership that have criminalized immigrants, reaped havoc on families and communities, and betrayed the very principles of inclusivity and tolerance that must guide our nation,” Mano Raju, the San Francisco Public Defender said.
He noted that the consequences for even a minor conviction can have devastating consequences for immigrants reaching far beyond those in the criminal legal system.
“We must end the jail to ice pipeline which has caused skyrocketing levels of inhumane detention and deportation,” Raju said. “It’s time for bold action from the federal government to make sure that no immigrant faces permanent banishment without competent, skilled representation.”
Raju called for the protections enshrined in Gideon v. Wainwright to the immigration context – ensuring legal representation for those caught up in the system.
“Due process means that the government must fairly justify its actions,” said Derwyn Bunton, Orleans Public Defenders and chair of the National Association for Public Defense “But due process means nothing without representation to help poor Black and brown people to access justice.
“Rules about how to get to an outcome are nothing without helping folks understand those rules and attain those outcomes.”
He said, “Every day public defenders are the witness to the power and cruelty of our criminal legal system and collaterally our immigration legal system. These injustices prey on vulnerability, trauma and harm. Our criminal legal system is built on systemic racism with disparities at its very core.”
Wendy Wayne, Director of Immigration Impact Unit, Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services called on the new administration to reverse the most egregious anti-immigration policies of the last four years.
She said these have “effectively closed our borders, dismantled our asylum system in violation of U.S. and international law, and created untold suffering among immigrant families and our communities.”
Wayne said she witnessed this last year visiting the border as a volunteer with the American Bar Association. One of those is the protocols that created makeshift refugee camps at the southern border.
She said these have been described by human rights officials “as equal to the worst refugee camps in the world.”
She also pointed to the policy of family separation.
“Although it allegedly stopped after a universal outcry in this country, these separations still occur today for those parents with even minor criminal histories from many years ago,” she said as she described her representation of a man with his three-year-old son who was “literally ripped from his father’s arms when he entered the US.”
The father was held for months was his traumatized son was taken to a shelter in upstate New York, she described.
“The separation was based on motor vehicle offenses from 15 years earlier, they were irrelevant to the father’s ability to be a good parent,” she added.
Andrea Sáenz, Attorney-in-Charge, head of New York Immigrant Family Unity Project at the Brooklyn Defender Services explained that in many of these cases, “the stakes are literally life and death” and therefore people need to have universal representation rights.
“No one should face a trained prosecutor alone or deported simply because they can’t afford an attorney,” she said.
Since 2013 has NIFA has started a program that has increased representation with great success at reuniting families.
“We need national leadership on this issue so we don’t leave out people who don’t live in the right place,” she added.
Edwin Tineo was born in the Dominican Republic but came over to the US when he was three, living in Queens. In 2019 he was contacted by ICE telling him he had two days to turn himself in. Little did he realize that 13 months later he would remain in ICE custody separated from his wife and children.
“Immigration detention was one of the worst experiences of my life – we were treated poorly and criminalized simply because of where I was born,” he said and it got worse when COVID hit – without social distancing or masks.
Finally, his attorney filed a motion allowing him to be released from detention.
“With this new president we need to make sure that no one goes through what I went through again,” he said. “We need to abolish ICE. ICE puts fears into our community by terrorizing our hard-working immigrant neighbors and locking them away. This agency should no longer exist.”
JJ Ramirez explained that he had an immigration attorney. He grew up in Santa Barbara County in California, coming to the US at age five from Mexico with his parents. He grew up in an abusive home and struggled as a trans. But at the age of 21, he made a big mistake and was convicted of a crime.
“After I completed my sentence, I was then transferred into ICE custody, where I spent seven months fighting my case,” he said. Carla Gomez from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office decided to take his case. “I still don’t have a legal status, but I have a valid work permit.”
“Without an attorney, I probably would have been deported, and I never would have had a fair shot at all,” Ramirez added.
Charles Joseph was formerly incarcerated – an immigrant from Fiji who was formerly incarcerated. ICE picked him up the day after he was paroled and he faced ICE detention despite his documented transformation in prison.
After spending 13 years in prison for robbing a convenience store, Joseph was released on parole in 2019, but his freedom was short-lived when ICE took him into custody immediately. Joseph is being detained at the Mesa Verde Detention Facility.
“Being in Mesa Verde was worse than all of the other prisons combined,” he said. It was thanks to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and his attorney Francisco Ugarte who continues to fight his case in the 9th Circuit.
Raha Jorjani explained that this is a coalition of public defenders, we’re going to do what public defenders do best – hold the Government accountable.
Wendy Wayne explained that ICE and DHS were created after 9/11 with a very different mission from what it has become today.
“People forget that the immigration system is supposed to be civil (law),” she said, “in ways in which it limits the rights of the individuals in the immigration system to not guarantee the right to an attorney or due process rights.”
“ICE has turned into a criminal enforcement agency with a huge budget that allows it to prioritize the deportation removal of people with minor criminal histories, people who have been here for many years who committed offenses as teenagers who are now adults with families,” she explained. Because it has become criminal, she argued, “the ask in this plan… is to increase legal representation for people in removal proceedings.”
They said that the Biden administration has received this request and they hope it will be acted on.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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