On Tuesday The Fresno City Council has the opportunity to uphold the constitutional rights of immigrant families in our community by creating a public-private legal defense fund to assist low-income individuals at risk of deportation with costs associated with consulting with an attorney.
The Central Valley Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild – a collective of attorneys, legal workers, and law students – strongly urges our council members to support this fund.
The right to due process is a quintessential constitutional right we all enjoy. It assures us that our government cannot take away our life, liberty, or property without providing us notice and an opportunity to be heard. This right is guaranteed to all individuals within our borders, irrespective of their immigration status, and is one of the hallmarks of our democracy.
While non-citizens facing deportation have the right to due process and the right to an attorney, courts do not provide no-cost attorneys for defendants in immigration proceedings as they do in criminal proceedings. This means that families are forced to pay out of pocket for legal fees at a price of hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Free legal representation for low-income non-citizens facing deportation is essentially nonexistent in the Fresno area.
Local legal aid offices are prohibited by the federal government from assisting undocumented individuals in immigration proceedings; there are few nonprofits that offer legal services, and the local bar association is comprised primarily of private firm attorneys and solo practitioners that are not providing pro bono assistance in immigration cases.
As many immigrant families in our community are also low income, lack of free or low-cost legal representation for deportation enforcement proceedings means that most individuals simply do not have access to a lawyer at any point in their case.
Without legal counsel, individuals unfamiliar with the legal system or who have limited English proficiency usually do not know their legal rights or how to assert them, and may be subject to deportation proceedings even if they have a valid claim to remain in the United States.
Having an attorney is absolutely essential to prevent unnecessary and unlawful deportations, and people in our communities are unable to access them.
To combat the lack of available legal resources in our community, the National Lawyers Guild has been providing Know Your Rights trainings to immigrant communities with a basic overview of their rights.
We have also been training legal observers to deploy during deportation enforcement actions to ensure that ICE officers comply with Fourth Amendment requirements regarding unlawful searches and seizures. This is no substitute for the the case-specific advice that is critical for individuals facing deportation and that can only be provided through legal representation.
A legal defense fund is the first step towards filling the existing gaps in legal services and making sure that the constitutional protections afforded to everyone have real meaning.
It will allow families to meet with a private immigration attorney to assess their case, ensuring that those individuals who do have a valid legal claim to remain in the United States are not unnecessarily torn from their families and their homes solely due to their inability to afford an attorney.
We urge the Fresno City Council to make the right decision Tuesday and to stand up for the constitutional rights of our community members by approving the creation of a legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation proceedings.