Last summer, Philadelphia joined an innovative program that helps immigrants facing deportation by providing the one asset guaranteed to give them a fighting chance in court: a lawyer.

Now, however, as the Kenney administration faces painful tax hikes, layoffs, and service reductions to fill a pandemic-driven chasm in the city budget, gone is the $200,000 for the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP).

The money is key to the project’s mission of offering free legal counsel to immigrants, for whom removal from the United States can have deadly consequences.

“I was about to be deported to a country where I’d probably get murdered the first two days home,” said J.R., 25, who said his sexuality put him in danger in his native Jamaica, and who agreed to speak only if identified by his initials.

PAIFUP lawyer Lilah Thompson took on J.R.’s case this year, winning him not only freedom from detention after three months at the Pike County Correctional Facility, but also a court ruling that he was not legally removable from the U.S. He returned to his job as a HVAC worker in Philadelphia, and now seeks to become a naturalized citizen.

The right to publicly funded legal representation seems an ingrained part of American law. But federal Immigration Court is different. Defendants generally have no right to court-appointed counsel, and even children can be made to serve as their own lawyers. One immigration judge famously described the system as “doing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.”

Mayor Jim Kenney announced a legal defense initiative for detained immigrants at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on July 16, 2019. The city partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice to help fund the program, which provides free legal counsel to immigrants facing deportation.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Mayor Jim Kenney announced a legal defense initiative for detained immigrants at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on July 16, 2019. The city partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice to help fund the program, which provides free legal counsel to immigrants facing deportation.

The cases tend to be complex and time-consuming, making it hard for poorer immigrants to find a lawyer willing to work free — and even harder to find one while held in ICE detention at places like Pike and the York County Prison. As a result, many are left to represent themselves against highly trained, well-financed government lawyers, often with deportation to dangerous homelands hanging in the balance.

“The consequences are really dire for many people,” said PAIFUP lawyer Maggie Kopel.

As the Trump administration has gone all-out to block and limit immigration — restricting asylum, cutting refugee admissions, building a border wall — coalitions of elected leaders, university scholars, and philanthropic organizations have pushed to create a defender-like system.

The impact of having a lawyer is dramatic. In a Penn Law Review study of 1.2 million deportation cases, only 37% of all immigrants and 14% of detainees had legal representation. Among migrants with lawyers, the odds of obtaining relief from removal were 5½ times greater than for those without counsel.

Mayor Jim Kenney announced the new project in July at the National Constitution Center, saying it would help Philadelphia “push back on the hate being driven by the White House” and “remain a place where everyone, including immigrants, feels safe and welcome.”

The city is among 18 communities across the country to partner with the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based justice advocate. The institute’s two-year-old SAFE network, an acronym for Safety and Fairness for Everyone, is similar to the public-defender system in criminal courts. Since its inception, clients represented by SAFE lawyers were permitted to remain in the U.S. in 35% of completed cases.

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. Immigration lawyers argue that while ICE detention is always unpleasant, it’s now become life-threatening, with more than 1,000 detainees testing positive for the coronavirus.

PAIFUP is holding out hope that Philadelphia City Council will restore the local funding when it considers the mayor’s budget in June.

“We’re back on our heels right now,” said Jonah Eaton, whose duties as supervising attorney at the Nationalities Service Center include overseeing PAIFUP’s legal work.

He said he doesn’t blame the Kenney administration, which faces $650 million in budget cuts, five times the deficit the city faced following the Great Recession of 2008.

“Unfortunately,” said Irene Contreras Reyes, deputy communications director for the mayor’s office, “COVID-19 has presented the administration with incredible challenges and tough decisions.… One of them was not to allocate funds to this program.”

PAIFUP argues that it produces a lot of good for not much money, that immigrants released from custody are able to work, pay taxes, and support families that often include U.S.-citizen children, lessening the need for public assistance.

Some PAIFUP clients fled violence in Central America. Some are seeking asylum. Some are lawful permanent residents who lived here for decades, but now face deportation because of a criminal charge. About a third of the clients live in Philadelphia, home to about 50,000 undocumented immigrants.

Many Americans, Eaton acknowledged, disapprove of spending public money to defend people who lack official permission to be here. But determining whether someone deserves to stay in the U.S., he and others said, often is a question for the courts.

“Every person who is detained should have a lawyer,” said Thompson, of PAIFUP. “This gives so much dignity to the process, even if it results in someone not being able to stay in the country.”

Supervisor Jonah Eaton, and two staff attorneys, Maggie Kopel (in black) and Lilah Thompson, outside Philadelphia City Hall. Due to pandemic-driven financial losses, the Kenney administration eliminated funding for the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project, which provides lawyers for migrants facing deportation. Advocates hope City Council will restore funding when it takes up the budget in June.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Supervisor Jonah Eaton, and two staff attorneys, Maggie Kopel (in black) and Lilah Thompson, outside Philadelphia City Hall. Due to pandemic-driven financial losses, the Kenney administration eliminated funding for the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project, which provides lawyers for migrants facing deportation. Advocates hope City Council will restore funding when it takes up the budget in June.

PAIFUP draws staff from both the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Immigrant Resource Center in York.

“Other than pre-K and criminal-justice reform, there has been no more important policy initiative than making sure that legal, proper protections are in place for the immigrants in Philadelphia,” said Mustafa Rashed of Bellevue Strategies, a consultant retained by Vera to navigate the budget process. “I’m confident we’ll find a way to restore funding.”

Kathiria hopes so.

She’s a 32-year-old U.S. citizen whose husband, a mechanic originally from the Dominican Republic, was arrested by ICE outside their Philadelphia home this year. He’s eligible to stay in the U.S., but for now is detained at Pike. She has moved to Reading to stay with family, she said, agreeing to speak only if her last name was withheld. And she’s counting on PAIFUP’s Kopel to get her husband released.

“She’s been helping me a lot,” Kathiria said. “From one day to the next, everything changed. He had been paying for food, paying the bills, taking care of me.… We were really happy together.”