Immigration Court is not like other courts.
There’s no right to court-appointed counsel, even though the consequences can be life-changing, such as being sent out of the country forever.
Now it looks as if a coalition that works to provide free lawyers to detainees will get a budget boost from Philadelphia City Council, so it can hire another lawyer and move Pennsylvania a small step closer to the representation offered in such places as New Jersey and New York City. There, immigrants held by federal authorities to face deportation are routinely offered lawyers, a major factor in whether they can win the right to stay in the country.
“There’s an extraordinary amount of need,” said Jonah Eaton, the director of legal services at the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia and a supervisor of the coalition, the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project, or PAIFUP. “This would let us take on more cases.”
The coalition — its acronym pronounced “Pife-Up” — asked for $300,000, a 50% increase from the $200,000 it gets now, but a fraction of the millions of dollars that go to similar programs in those two neighboring states.
Late Thursday night, City Council advanced a budget deal that includes the additional funding, with a final vote expected this week. That money helps the coalition draw more money from grant-makers.
That comes as community advocates have pressed City Council to focus its spending on programs that directly help people, including efforts to combat violence, racism and eviction.
In its first year of providing free counsel to detained immigrants in Pennsylvania, PAIFUP represented 38 clients, successfully getting 13 released to their families and winning one case outright.
Then the pandemic hit, blocking the coalition’s physical access to detention centers and clients. Still, PAIFUP was able to represent 49 clients and win release for 18.
“The year has been immensely challenging,” Eaton said. “But our attorneys have done really impressive work.”
The coalition includes lawyers from the Nationalities Service Center and the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center in York, buttressed by community allies including Juntos, Asian Americans United, HIAS PA and the Free Migration Project.
“Everyday, we’re speaking to people that are asking for help, that are needing someone to explain the legal system to them,” said Karina Suarez, detention-programs coordinator at the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center and PAIFUP. “We at PIRC are overwhelmed with requests.”
On Thursday, she said, she got a call from a detainee who had accepted his removal order without understanding the repercussions. Those kinds of situations aren’t unusual, she said, because most people don’t know the legalities of the immigration system — which is why they need lawyers.
“Everyone deserves a chance,” Suarez said. “It’s important to set the precedent that this matters.”
On Thursday in Philadelphia, PAIFUP presented client Paul Beaumont with a small, laminated paper — his green card, making him a lawful permanent resident of the United States. That after more than 40 years in the country.
“All this time …” he said, turning over the card in his hands.
Beaumont came to PAIFUP before the coalition formally existed, back in 2016, when it was just a few attorneys with an idea and he was detained at the York County Prison, facing deportation to Jamaica. The emerging coalition managed to get him out of detention, and continued fighting his case to win him residency.
Beaumont, who is nearly 67, came to the United States in 1979, entering the country legally and then overstaying a visa. Since then, he’s built a life in Philadelphia, with three children, a role mentoring young people in the local Jamaican community, and a job as a house renovator.
It was his work that inadvertently landed him in detention. A wire sparked, and a neighbor called police, who realized he had failed to check in with probation officials on an old assault conviction. He spent months in ICE detention before being released on bond.
As of Thursday, with proof of legal residency in hand, he’s eligible to become a U.S. citizen, “but right now I’m satisfied with a green card,” Beaumont said.
This year PAIFUP and other lawyers gained the freedom of Saroun Khan, 42, of Olney, who spent 13 months in detention, targeted for deportation for having taken a car on a joyride when he was 19. The Cambodian man, brought here as a child refugee, still faces removal but for now can live freely, work, and assist in his case without the limits and stress of detention.
“We want more stories like Saroun’s,” said his lawyer, Lilah Thompson, of the Nationalities Service Center and the PAIFUP coalition. “It’s impossible if we don’t have funding for our project.”
The right to publicly funded legal representation seems ingrained in American law. But in federal Immigration Court, migrants generally have no right to court-appointed counsel, and even children can be made to serve as their own lawyers.
Immigrants end up representing themselves against highly trained, well-financed government lawyers, often with deportation to dangerous homelands hanging in the balance. One immigration judge famously described the system as “death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”
The cases tend to be difficult and time-consuming, and that makes it hard for immigrants to find a lawyer willing to work for free — and even harder to find one while locked in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention at places like the Pike County Correctional Facility and the York County Prison.
During the last five years, nearly two-thirds of the migrants who appeared in court at York had no legal representation, according to PAIFUP.
Yet immigrants who have lawyers are 3½ times more likely to be released from detention, able to fight their cases from positions of freedom, and up to 10 times more likely to establish a right to remain in the United States, according to the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.
Mayor Jim Kenney announced the PAIFUP project in July 2019 — a partnership with Vera — saying it would help Philadelphia “push back on the hate” emanating from the Trump White House and “remain a place where everyone, including immigrants, feels safe and welcome.”
Immigration lawyers note that although the presidential administration has changed, the laws have not.
“The stakes are huge,” Eaton said. “Exile from this country is arguably more serious than a wide gamut of criminal penalties, especially if you have been here a while and have a family.”