Opinion | Peter Bakken: No one should face the justice system alone
“My name is Ismael. I live in Garfield County. I was detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. When I was in detention in Aurora without the money for a lawyer. I was forced to represent myself in front of the immigration judge and ask for more time to find representation. By the second time I saw the judge without an attorney, I was scared because he seemed irritated and told me that I needed to find an attorney by my next court date. My wife, after months of calling and calling, finally got a pro bono lawyer to help me. It took another month to bond out.
I had what I needed to build and win my case in court, but without the help of the lawyer, I would have been deported. I am so grateful to be reunited with my family. It’s terrible inside. What I went through, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. There were people detained with me that had been in there for over a year because they had not been able to afford or secure a lawyer.”
These are the words of a community member as told to Mountain Dreamers, an immigrant rights community nonprofit based in Summit County. His story is not unique.
The right of every person in the U.S. to an attorney regardless of one’s ability to pay is a pillar of the American justice system, yet no such right extends to defendants in the nation’s 69 immigration courts, where you can be detained and not provided a lawyer if you can’t afford one yourself. This means that more than 70% of Colorado residents detained in one of the private, for-profit immigration prisons (such as the GEO ICE facility in Aurora), must stand alone before an immigration judge and defend themselves against a well-trained ICE lawyer — whether or not they understand the process or speak English and even if they are a child.
This is why Mountain Dreamers supports the effort to create a statewide Immigration Legal Defense Fund through Colorado House Bill 21-1194, recently introduced in the state Legislature.
The bill would create a fund from which the state of Colorado would award grants to qualifying nonprofits that provide attorneys to low-income clients in deportation proceedings.
Much like the public defender system, the Immigration Legal Defense Fund would help ensure that all immigrants in Colorado, including unaccompanied children, are given a fair shot to argue their case in court to the full extent of the law with the help of an experienced attorney, regardless of their ability to pay.
This legislation is important for all Coloradans, including those of us in the rural and mountain regions, because when residents are detained or deported, they can no longer work, contribute to their communities, provide for their families or take care of their children. Our communities depend on the work of immigrants who are the backbone of our region’s tourism, agriculture and construction industries. When those workers are detained or deported, employers and our local economies are negatively impacted. And importantly, when any person in our state is denied the right of due process in court as guaranteed by our Constitution and laws, overall trust in our judicial system and government is eroded.
While some cities in Colorado are creating their own Immigrant Legal Defense Funds, in rural regions, low-income immigrants and asylum-seekers have very limited options for legal representation if they are detained, going into immigration court facing deportation or seeking asylum. The Immigration Legal Defense Fund would help fund nonprofit legal service organizations in rural Colorado that provide free legal representation to clients facing deportation proceedings.
Not surprisingly, individuals with a lawyer are 10 times more likely to establish that they have a legal right to remain in the United States than those without a lawyer. If they are in detainment, they are 3.5 times more likely to be granted bond so that they can return to their families, communities and jobs while they fight their civil immigration case.
Mountain Dreamers believes that no one should face the justice system alone and that everyone facing the serious consequence of being forcefully torn from their families and communities through detainment and deportation has a right to their day in court with quality legal representation. We urge legislators to support HB21-1194 to strengthen our communities and uphold our shared American value of due process under the law, including the right to an attorney if you can’t afford one.
Peter Bakken is the executive director of Mountain Dreamers, a Summit County based immigrant rights group that operates throughout the mountain corridor. For more information visit MountainDreamers.org.
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