In my 17 years as an immigration judge in Los Angeles, I heard thousands of cases. I watched sons trying to grasp complicated legal concepts not written in their native language and mothers desperately advocating for daughters who were in detention. I saw families torn apart by a system they were unable to understand.
The Trump administration’s new wave of immigration raids will flood the courts with such cases. Though some immigrants will be deported immediately, the fates of many others will be decided by judges, as the Constitution and immigration laws allow. This flood will worsen a longstanding need for more legal representation.
As if language barriers weren’t enough, defendants in immigration court have no constitutional right to a court-appointed lawyer. For this reason, New York City and other localities have created programs to provide lawyers to immigrants facing deportation. At the moment, L.A. has no such program in place, even though the city has one of the largest unauthorized immigrant populations in the country — nearly one in 10 of these immigrants lives in L.A. County, according to a 2015 study by the Migration Policy Institute.
In December, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the creation of a $10 million fund to provide lawyers to immigrants facing deportation. But the parameters of the program are still being determined. In order to be effective, the program needs to be implemented soon and expanded quickly.
For defendants in deportation proceedings, the stakes can be life or death, since some face torture or worse upon returning to their home countries. This is why a fellow immigration judge, Dana Marks, once said that deportation cases are “death penalty cases heard in traffic court settings.” Many other defendants face permanent separation from their families.
Yet immigrants who cannot afford a lawyer must argue against government prosecutors. More often than not, this includes immigrants who are detained — that is, jailed — while their cases move through the courts. Detention almost always means loss of income, while lawyers cost more than the majority of immigrants can afford. A person who speaks little or no English must gather information from police officers or medical experts, submit written declarations in English or find evidence to support their asylum claims, all without access to the Internet or to affordable phone calls. There are an estimated 3,700 immigrants in detention across the greater L.A. area, according to the mayor’s office.
With one side at such a great disadvantage, it becomes much harder for judges to apply the law in a just manner, increasing the risk of flawed decisions. Especially in cases where defendants are detained, a day in court without a lawyer isn’t a day in court at all. A recent study found that detained immigrants who are represented by an attorney are five times more likely to win their cases than immigrants without representation.
A court system without lawyers is not merely unjust — it is also inefficient and wasteful. Without adequate legal representation for immigrants, judges can’t spend their time making decisions. Instead, they must constantly explain the legal process, reschedule cases and answer questions. In some instances, judges issue decisions only to cover the same ground again if the defendant is lucky enough to find a lawyer and get the case re-heard.
All this waste results in a heavily backlogged immigration court system, and nowhere more so than in California, where almost 100,000 cases are waiting to be decided. In San Francisco, for instance, an immigrant in court today will have his next hearing over two years from now.
The consequences of this inefficient system are felt far beyond immigrant families. In 2014, immigrants contributed $232.9 billion, or 35.7 %, to the city’s economy. The detention of immigrants during unnecessarily drawn-out deportation cases keeps productive workers out of the labor force while also placing burdens on the state system.
New York City’s program, which began in 2013, has been tremendously successful. After securing representation for its first 1,000 clients, the program reported that it completed more than a third of the city’s deportation cases in the first or second hearing, and that immigrants were nearly 10 times more likely to win their cases. The program has since been expanded to New York State.
After 17 years on the bench, I’m troubled to see a wave of new raids that are sure to clog the dockets for years to come. But I also see an opportunity for local leaders to take a stand and provide immigrant communities with the fair and responsive representation they deserve.