By Vikki Ortiz Healy
Illegal Immigrants in Chicago have seen a dramatic increase in legal representation since earlier this year, thanks in part to a fund established by the city, according to an independent study released this week by researchers at Syracuse University.
According to the report, the percentage of immigrants in Chicago who were represented in deportation hearings spiked from 30 percent in May to 57 percent in August.
“The more representation we have in court, the more we have a balanced system,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based immigrant advocacy group that partnered with the city to help give legal counsel and services to thousands of immigrants threatened with deportation.
The Legal Defense Fund, approved by the Chicago City Council in January, uses $1.3 million in city funds to pay for immigrants’ legal services or to help them navigate other options to try to avoid deportation.
The fund has been used to hire attorneys at the National Immigrant Justice Center and also issue grants to 10 community organizations for outreach. So far, 1,560 Chicago residents have received free legal screenings, and immigrants have had representation in court for 766 cases. Advocates hope to offer legal representation in 1,000 cases and Know Your Rights training sessions to 20,000 people in the first year, according to officials at the center.
“Good legal advice … reduces the chances of (immigrants) being deported to a country where their lives may be in danger or of them being permanently separated from their families,” McCarthy said.
Immigration advocates contend that the outcomes of deportation cases are dramatically impacted by whether a person has a lawyer. Across the U.S., when an immigrant who is not being held in a detention center has representation in court, 63 percent avoid deportation. Only 13 percent of those not in a detention center avoid deportation when they don’t have representation. The remaining 24 percent are ordered deported, McCarthy said.
The increase in immigrants using lawyers through Chicago’s fund was evident in findings released Monday from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a research center at Syracuse University that works to make data about government spending more accessible.
“It’s very unusual to see a spike for a recent time period,” said Susan Long, co-director of TRAC at Syracuse University. “There’s been a sudden change here, so that even with a very short time frame, people are suddenly finding attorneys.”
The research center also released data last month showing that Illinois immigrants facing deportation have lawyers to represent them in court 53 percent of the time. Illinois falls roughly in the middle compared with other states, with immigrants in Hawaii having the highest rate of representation in deportation hearings — 83 percent — and Georgia immigrants having the lowest, at 38 percent.
Immigrant advocacy groups and attorneys said immigrants facing deportation are often removed from the country because they can’t afford or don’t have access to lawyers who can help them to navigate the complicated court process needed to prove that they qualify to stay in the country. Making legal services accessible also helps to keep immigrants facing deportation — often children — away from corrupt opportunists who charge lesser fees than lawyers but offer poor counsel that ultimately can hurt immigrants’ cases.
Unlike in criminal proceedings, the federal government is not required to provide legal counsel to those without the means to hire an attorney in immigration court.
But some oppose the idea of using government funds to pay for immigrants’ legal counsel.
“We’re defending people that are breaking our laws,” said Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th, the lone vote against the city fund, which came from $20 million the city set aside for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s property tax rebate program. That initiative fell flat, with just 12,000 households applying for tax relief to the tune of about $1 million, leaving ample leftover money to pay for immigrant defense.
Sposato said he empathizes with hardworking immigrants who call Chicago home despite being here illegally. But he would rather see city funds go toward public safety, mental health issues or retired city employees who have no insurance.
“The bottom line is we have a process here. To jump in front of the line before other people, I just don’t think it’s right,” Sposato said.
The TRAC report showed that immigrants in all pending cases in Chicago and the collar counties had higher odds of representation than those in rural areas of the state — inconsistencies that mirror those in other states. In Cook County, immigrants were represented 72 percent of the time; 77 percent in DuPage County; 67 percent in Lake; 76 percent in Kane; 80 percent in Will; and 76 percent in McHenry. Meanwhile, immigrants in downstate Sangamon County were represented 34 percent of the time, and those in Morgan County were represented 39 percent of the time.
Because the data on legal representation is the first of its kind collected, researchers hope it will help both immigrant advocacy groups and the public understand how effective funds like the one in Chicago are over time, Long said.
“Chicago is part of a movement of trying to come up with methods to provide representation. The natural question is how effective is it? Being able to monitor that … we thought would be very useful,” she said.
Laura Mendoza, an immigration organizer for the Resurrection Project, said many immigrants she works with are grateful to learn there is a fund to help cover the cost of legal counsel. In some cases, immigrants facing deportation need documentation from a police station to prove they are victims of a crime who may qualify to stay. Lawyers and legal advocates walk them into the police stations to help get the needed paperwork.
“That could be incredibly intimidating. They may not speak the language; they may not know how things work,” Mendoza said. “They’re incredibly thankful that there is the ability to be able to get a legal consultation and to get some clarity on the questions that they have.”
Reem Odeh, a Chicago immigration attorney who owns her own firm, said she was glad to see more immigrants gaining access to attorneys because of the complexity of most cases.
“The laws for immigration are so Draconian, which means you forget one technicality or blow one deadline and you may not be able to reopen that case permanently,” Odeh said. “You drop the ball on one element and you could potentially destroy that person’s future for him and his entire family.”