ACCESS TO JUSTICE
MEKELA GOEHRING, WITH CONTRIBUTIONS FROM PHIL BARBER, J.
The Access to Justice Series explores the access to justice gap in Colorado, discusses strides that have been made in closing this gap, and encourages innovation in this arena.
Working at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN) for the last 14 years has given me the privilege of bearing witness to the very best of the human spirit. RMIAN is a nonprofit organization that provides free immigration legal services to individuals in civil immigration detention in Colorado, as well as to children throughout the state. I have witnessed families be uprooted from their homes, separated from their family members, and persecuted, yet possess the strength and resilience to endure detention, navigate an unbelievably complicated and often nonsensical legal system, and fight for their very survival so that their children could have opportunities to thrive and grow.
But my job has also forced me to confront the fundamental unfairness and cruelty of our government's immigration system. While working at the detention center in Aurora, one of my first cases involved a mother of two young children who was in immigration detention after being referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as a result of a traffic infraction. She was a survivor of domestic violence, had assisted law enforcement in the prosecution of that case, and was eligible for a special humanitarian protection under federal immigration law called a U visa (which she would later go on to obtain). Yet she had been taken from her 9-month-old baby and 4-year-old child, stripped of her belongings, put in a jumpsuit, and jailed in the civil immigration detention center, with no resources to hire a private immigration attorney to fight for her rights.
The stark reality is that there is no right to court-appointed counsel in immigration removal (deportation) proceedings.1 As a practical matter, this means that 6-year-old children are expected to represent themselves in their immigration proceedings, before an immigration judge, with opposing counsel from ICE on the other side. It means that individuals in civil immigration detention are expected to navigate a complex legal and procedural system, where their lives may be on the line, while detained in a prison with no access to documents to support their cases, no Internet, little or no access to family members, and, most likely, without counsel. If this sounds like imprisonment, you are correct. The detention process bears little resemblance to civil procedures. Studies show that nationally over 84% of immigrants in civil immigration detention are unrepresented by an attorney, creating vast and unjust disparities in court outcomes based on clients' income levels.2
Why is Representation in Immigration Proceedings so Important?
Immigration attorneys and advocates know that access to counsel may be the single most important determinant in an individual's ability to win his or her immigration case, and this perception is backed by empirical studies. A national study of access to counsel in immigration court found that "detained immigrants with counsel obtained a successful outcome in 21 % of cases, ten-and-a-half times greater than the 2% rate for...