Children in a holding area.

Connecticut has a responsibility to maintain an immigration system that will uphold justice and due process for all state residents, regardless of their citizenship status.

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants government-funded legal counsel to indigent criminal defendants, though legal scholars have stopped short of extending the same courtesy to immigration proceedings. Public defenders are not required in immigration court, even (and most poignantly) when juveniles are involved.

Despite the best efforts of non-profit organizations and nascent government programs, an estimated 75 to 90% of immigrants face deportation proceedings without an attorney. Without proper legal defense, immigrants of all ages are far more likely to be expelled from their homes in the United States and returned to the dangerous conditions of their natal countries, where violence, war, hunger, and extreme poverty are on the rise. Unless action is taken to authorize legal counsel for immigrants in removal proceedings, Connecticut will remain complicit in an inhumane and unjust deportation program.

The Connecticut legislature is already familiar with SB 991 (2019) and SB 524 (2021), which represent previous efforts to provide legal counsel to migrants in court. Though these two bills would prove unsuccessful, Connecticut can make up for lost time by prioritizing immigration policy in the upcoming 2022 legislative session. Eliminating discrepancies in legal representation is long overdue. It’s past time for the General Assembly to provide legal counsel to migrants facing immigration proceedings.

Over 120,000 undocumented immigrants reside in Connecticut, the majority of them being burdened by the cost of legal representation.  Most cannot afford an attorney, even though having access to one significantly improves an individual’s chances of winning their case. Statistics show that immigrants with attorneys are 3 to 5 times more likely to be granted bond and up to 10 times more likely to establish their right to residency in the United States than their counterparts without representation. Despite compelling data, a whopping 77% of immigration cases in 2019 did not offer the defendant representation, resulting in deportations and family separations. All immigrants in Connecticut, regardless of financial status, deserve access to legal representation in removal proceedings.

Children are particularly vulnerable to deportation in the absence of legal counsel. Often, they’ve come to the United States unaccompanied and enter immigration court all alone. Unaccompanied immigrant minors tend to flee from persecution, gang violence, and other forms of organized crime. Connecticut received 953 unaccompanied minors in 2019, triple the count of the previous year and quadruple the number from the previous four years. As of 2014, more than 80% of children who have shown up to court without legal presentation have been deported, whereas only 12% of children with legal representation have been deported. By the founding standards of our nation, it is both unlawful and morally reprehensible to withhold representation from defendants whose wellbeing is determined by the outcome of this process.

I strongly believe that the state of Connecticut should appoint government-provided attorneys in immigration court for low-income migrants who can’t afford to hire them. Immigrants, including children, are expected to argue their cases alone with limited English proficiency and only a cursory understanding of America’s complex immigration system. Lack of legal representation, beyond a crisis of values, creates backlogs that today account for  roughly 17,101 pending immigration cases in Connecticut. Experts and immigration judges have long pointed to a lack of adequate resources as a major factor behind the growth and proliferation of these backlogs.

More government money is spent on apprehensions at the border and identifying noncitizens for arrest than on the resulting court proceedings, a curious and damning incongruity. Allowing these backlogs to pile up in the state means that immigration proceedings are delayed for months or even years, leaving immigrants in a kind of legal limbo. The absence of adequate legal counsel not only puts the state in a precarious position but fails to provide for immigrants who are desperate to live and work in America.

Offering legal counsel to children and adults in removal proceedings will more fully realize our country’s creed and ensure that our neighbors are afforded a fair and just immigration experience. Please contact your state legislators so that immigrants of all ages can have the fighting chance to determine their futures.

Evelyn Letona Robles is a legislative fellow for the Yale College Democrats.