Summit County nonprofit Mountain Dreamers starts legal defense fund to help pay for lawyers in immigration cases
FRISCO — Mountain Dreamers, a local immigrant rights organization, is starting a new legal defense fund to assist people facing upcoming hearings in immigration court.
The development of the fund — meant to secure representation in court for individuals in the area’s immigrant population facing deportation or asylum hearings — was one of Mountain Dreamers’ initial priorities when the organization began to come together last year. The fund is still in its infancy, but with court dates on the horizon and the future of community members’ status in the country at stake, representatives with Mountain Dreamers felt they couldn’t wait any longer.
“The idea is to develop a legal defense fund so we can assist local immigrant families in paying for an attorney to represent them in immigration court,” Mountain Dreamers executive director Peter Bakken said. “In the future, we’d like to expand it to help immigrants with cases that are ongoing, that have to do with getting legal permanent residency or even citizenship. But we feel like the most urgent situation is folks who are facing going to immigration court without an attorney.”
Bakken is referring to a common problem for immigrants in the system. Unlike with individuals facing criminal proceedings, those heading to immigration court aren’t guaranteed any sort of legal aid or public defender throughout the process, a major disadvantage for those who can’t afford their own attorneys.
According to Karen McCarthy, an immigration attorney with Elevation Law in Dillon who works with Mountain Dreamers, those who take on immigration hearings on their own rarely stand a chance to win.
“To me, it’s the biggest injustice I’ve seen, the way the courts are pushing these cases through and not giving the family time to find good legal representation,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been hearing about cases falling through the cracks, people getting orders for deportation that maybe should have received asylum, but without a lawyer in immigration court, it’s nearly impossible to win your case. Even lawyers who have been practicing their entire lives who take on an immigration case might not know what to do, let alone somebody who may not have finished high school. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Adding to concerns for immigrants is a new expedited family docket policy at Denver immigration courts put in place by the Department of Justice. The mandate is essentially to prioritize moving families through their immigration cases as quickly as possible — typically within a year — even at the expense of others who’ve been waiting longer to have their cases heard. For immigrant families seeking asylum or facing deportation, that means less time to find representation and prepare their case. For judges and attorneys, it means more confusion and more scheduling woes in an already backlogged system.
There are more than 15,000 pending immigration cases in Colorado, with an average length of over 900 days before a case is heard, according to Trac Immigration, an independent and nonpartisan database run through Syracuse University.
“While this administration is attempting to run things more efficiently, these initiatives are having the exact opposite effect from our perspective on the ground,” McCarthy said.
On the docket
Mountain Dreamers is working to fund legal assistance for individuals in two cases set to hit immigration courts in Denver early next month as part of the expedited family docket initiative.
The first involves a man and his 13-year-old son, who fled to Summit County from El Salvador three months ago after being targeted by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang — a conflict that lead to the shooting death of a family member. The man and his son were detained in Texas for several days before being released, and both are scheduled for an asylum hearing Sept. 9.
The second case is similar, involving a woman and her 13-year–old son, who fled to Eagle County from El Salvador about a year ago after she was beaten to the point of being permanently disabled. The mother and child are scheduled for their asylum hearing Sept. 12.
The Summit Daily News has agreed not to include any other identifying information about the cases due to ongoing safety concerns if the individuals involved are deported.
Bakken said the group is working with local immigration attorneys to come up with a flat rate of about $5,000 to handle cases referred to Mountain Dreamers, at least $2,500 per case to put an attorney on retainer and an additional $2,500 later in the process. Bakken said the fund already has raised more than $1,000 but noted that the program would have to expand to make a difference in the region.
“We’re hoping it directly helps some of these immigrant families to remain in the country, and not be deported back to the situations they just fled from,” Bakken said. “And this gives people in the community a way to be involved in supporting the immigrants that make up such a large part of our community and workforce. I think we’re also hoping it helps to bring awareness to the challenges and barriers that immigrants are facing.”
To contribute to the fund, visit MountainDreamers.org.
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