Despite the growing fiscal constraints related to the pandemic, immigrant advocates are hopeful that the General Assembly will pass a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would set up a statewide legal defense fund for immigrants of all types in immigration proceedings across all of Colorado.
Last week, at the American Friends Service Committee’s Spotlight on Colorado’s Legislative Session 2021, several agency representatives discussed the initiative to advocate for the legislation to create the Colorado Legal Defense Fund.
“I know immigration law is a federal issue, but it affects our communities here in Colorado, and we have an opportunity to say we think that people should have a fair day in court,” said Jennifer Piper, program director for the American Friends Service Committee’s Colorado Office.
The proposed program created by the bill would be universal in approach to representation, according to Piper. She said that because of the universal representation aspect, attorneys receiving the grants wouldn’t be able to pick the easiest cases. Piper added that many funds for legal defense are restricted, and limited cases to pick up and fight realistically.
Piper sits on the steering committee for the Colorado Immigrant Right’s Coalitions legal defense efforts, and CIRC is working on the bill. Previously, the organization had created the Campaign for Dignity and Due Process, which works to ensure that all Colorado immigrants have access to legal representation via the passing of a statewide legal defense fund.
Piper further said currently CIRC’s member organizations are spearheading the effort, and other organizations may join in on the proposed bill in the future.
Piper said that work was under way to set out details for the bill’s running this year. She also said she felt the bill had strong sponsors throughout the Colorado General Assembly. According to the CIRC campaign webpage, the statewide fund will provide an opportunity for “any Coloradan” in deportation proceedings to qualify for a free lawyer if they couldn’t afford one.
While some details are still in the works, certain aspects of the framework for the fund are being set up. The fund would work similarly in concept and grant structure to the Denver Immigrant Legal Services Fund, according to Piper. The DILSF awards grants to nonprofit organizations to provide representation for qualified individuals threatened with or in removal proceedings.
The proposed process for the fund begins with money being administered by a state agency yet to be named Piper said. However, she did mention that discussions are underway to determine which agency. When that agency is selected, it will grant out to legal services nonprofits, and as the fund grows, immigration attorneys with experience can set up legal service organizations in different areas around Colorado.
Recent discussions have mentioned organizations working together to provide office space to attorneys to meet with all clients in areas far from Denver, such as Alamosa, she said. This, she hoped, would bring clients and lawyers face to face before needing to get to court.
The fund would also be a statewide fund available across the many different areas of Colorado. The steering committee includes impacted immigrants covering an area from the mountain corridor to Grand Junction to Pueblo and up to Fort Morgan, Piper said.
Much like the Denver fund, the program will be set up as a public-private partnership, Piper said. The importance of using a public-private partnership is the ability to show support and help immigrants. Having public and private funds in such programs is a way of showing the federal government that citizens and local and state governments consider universal representation to be a priority across the nation.
If the fund relied only on public dollars, Piper said, she is unsure whether the funds would reach every immigrant in need. However, if it were funded only with private funds, she said she is also unsure whether a private-only fund would send a clear message about the level of support for immigrants.
The fund focuses on universal representation for those across Colorado who are facing deportation proceedings, Piper said. The proposed fund would likely be subject to income limits for non-detained and possibly eligible individuals, similar to a public defender, requiring them to show they cannot afford a lawyer themselves.
The important aspect of a statewide fund to Piper is ensuring that some people are not left behind because of a lack of resources or different political understandings of immigrant roles in their communities, she said.
If the funds were provided only city by city, instead of statewide, Piper said she was worried only people living in larger metro areas would benefit from the funds. “That’s really disturbing because for immigrants in rural areas, often an immigration attorney is even more expensive,” she said, adding that there can be hundreds of miles of Colorado with no immigration attorneys at all.
And, because immigration court and detention are located in Denver, most immigration attorneys are close to Denver, she said. If someone were paying for an attorney in a rural area, often the attorney must be compensated for travel as well. If a person in immigration detention, or deportation proceedings, were to hire a lawyer themselves, costs typically range between $10,000 to $20,000 for a somewhat straightforward defense, according to Piper. Because of that, about 70% of people in Colorado go before immigration judges unrepresented in high complex immigration proceedings.
“I don’t know two cases in any legal proceedings that are the same,” Piper said. “But that’s much more true in immigration law than in other cases. Finding the right legal pathway for staying in the U.S. is difficult, and if an immigrant is able to pick the right pathway, then argue their case in court and win “is almost unheard of.”
For individuals, such as those immigrants in deportation proceedings, proposed ideas include providing a list of grants and organizations for the detainee to contact for a screening to meet requirements, she said.
Also, some people who find themselves in immigration proceedings are lawful permanent residents who hold temporary work visas, Piper said. She added that not every person in the Aurora facility is seeking asylum or undocumented immigrants. As a person makes their way down the path to citizenship, Piper added there were “pitfalls” where a person can slide off that path and then be detained.
“I think the other thing we’re hoping that’ll be achieved through this fund is … ensuring that people from all countries have access to this pro bono lawyer, when they can’t afford an attorney. And for asylum seekers, that’s a lot of folks,” Piper said.
The discretionary aspect of immigration law is a “huge” barrier for people being able to access legal pathways for staying in the U.S., Piper said. About 85% of people with lawyers involved in their cases gain release in their case. That is not necessarily a win, but it makes a difference.
Piper said that only about 15% of people without a lawyer gain release in a case. Often those detained are the main breadwinners in their household and don’t have $20,000 saved away for legal defense.
But challenges to selecting cases go beyond simply legal challenges. Some challenges to obtaining representation include language barriers and national diversity, Piper said. And, when a fund exists at either only a city level or only via private funds, obtaining representation can be very challenging.
The proposed fund, according to the CIRC website, would replicate a public defender model for immigration court, and in return “no one” will be turned away because of the likelihood of winning their case.
“Everyone means everyone,” according to the CIRC webpage. “If passed, Colorado would join other states like Oregon, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and California in standing up for due-process and dignity for all.”