After being endangered by massive coronavirus-driven cuts to the city budget, a Philadelphia program that provides free lawyers to immigrants facing deportation had its funding restored in the closing days of the appropriations process.
For detained undocumented immigrants, an attorney is the one asset guaranteed to give them a fighting chance against removal, which for many can have dangerous or even fatal consequences.
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Now, the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP) will receive its full planned $200,000 allocation, according to city councilmembers. That helps draw an additional $300,000 over three years from the Samuel S. Fels Fund, which supports marginalized communities in the city.
“It’s really, really great news,” said Jonah Eaton, whose duties as supervising attorney at the Nationalities Service Center include overseeing PAIFUP’s legal work. “We can continue to represent people who otherwise would be in these really impossible situations, having to navigate a tremendously complicated legal regime on their own.”
He credited advocacy from immigrant organizations including Juntos, Africom-Philly, and HIAS Pennsylvania, and said the local and national protests against racism doubtless had an impact, encouraging lawmakers everywhere to focus spending priorities on programs that directly help people.
Immigrants who have lawyers to help battle deportation have a 5½ times greater chance of winning relief in court than those without counsel.
“With this investment, Philadelphia continues to be at the forefront of expanding protections to our families and communities in a time of grave injustice,” said City Councilmember Helen Gym, who has backed the program since its start last summer. “Our immigrant neighbors … can rest assured that the city will continue to do everything possible to protect their rights.”
City funding for the program had vanished as the Kenney administration faced a $749 million budget hole created by the pandemic.
The right to publicly funded legal representation seems a standard part of American law. But in federal Immigration Court, defendants generally have no right to court-appointed counsel, and even children can be made to serve as their own lawyers.
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 in federal detention. As a result, many are left to represent themselves against highly trained, well-financed government lawyers.
Since SAFE’s inception, clients represented by SAFE lawyers were allowed to remain in the United States in 35% of completed cases. In its first year, PAIFUP represented 38 clients, successfully getting 13 released to their families and winning one case outright.
“I was about to be deported to a country where I’d probably get murdered the first two days home,” a Jamaican man, J.R., earlier told The Inquirer, agreeing to speak only if identified by his initials.
J.R., 25, of Philadelphia, said his sexuality put him in danger in his homeland. PAIFUP lawyer Lilah Thompson won him not only freedom from detention at the Pike County Correctional Facility, but a court ruling that he was not legally removable.
He returned to his job as a HVAC worker in Philadelphia, and now seeks to become a naturalized citizen.
Detention has become life-threatening, immigration lawyers argue, with more than 1,000 detainees testing positive for the coronavirus. Last week, a federal judge cited the danger of the pandemic and ordered the Trump administration to release all children who have been held for more than 20 days in the nation’s three family detention centers. Those 124 children include five currently held at the Berks County detention center in Pennsylvania. The judge set a July 17 deadline.
As President Donald Trump has worked 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 viable, well-funded, defender-like systems.
“This is an unusually large grant for our foundation to make, but these are unusual times,” said Fels president Sarah Martinez-Helfman.
Mayor Jim Kenney announced the city’s participation in SAFE last July at the National Constitution Center, saying it would help Philadelphia “remain a place where everyone, including immigrants, feels safe and welcome.”
A Penn Law Review study of 1.2 million deportation cases found that only 37% of all immigrants and 14% of detainees had legal representation.
PAIFUP’s services are provided by attorneys at the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center in York. They represent people detained at the York and Pike jails.
The $200,000 in the new budget represents twice the city’s initial $100,000 investment. For PAIFUP to operate statewide, it would need about $2 million from all funding sources.
In addition to Gym, restored funding was supported by Council President Darrell L. Clarke and Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson, Jamie Gauthier, Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez, Kendra Brooks, and Derek Green, according to Gym’s office.