Battling Deportation Often a Solitary Journey

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007

Shortly after 9 a.m., all rose.

The black-robed judge took his seat under the Justice Department seal and in front of the federal prosecutor. People whispering in various languages spilled out of the cramped courtroom into the hallway of the federal immigration court in Arlington County, waiting for their chance to fight to stay in the United States, agree to leave or be deported.

Salvadoran Roxana Velasco sat alone in the waiting room. Like several other people listed on that morning's 37-case docket, she had no attorney.

"The judge said I have to have a lawyer or I have to represent myself," said Velasco, 30, recalling her first hearing in October. "How am I going to do that?"

In immigration courts, there are judges and prosecutors, evidence and witnesses. The consequences can be great: banishment, separation from family, perhaps persecution at home. But unlike in criminal courts, the government does not provide free lawyers for the poor. And in what court officials deem a great concern, a growing number of people in immigration court have no legal counsel: Of more than 314,000 people whose cases ran their course in fiscal 2005, two-thirds went through on their own, or pro se.

That leaves respondents to navigate byzantine immigration law, the judges to walk them through it and, critics say, the courts to operate sluggishly and deport thousands unfairly.

"How do they possibly pick out of everything that's happened to them in their lives the legally significant points?" asked Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. "You have to know the legal standards to do that."

The issue is more crucial than ever, Kerwin said, as stepped-up enforcement increasingly sends immigrants -- including children -- to court and to rural detention centers, where lawyers are hard to find.

Velasco, who was caught by federal border police after slipping across the Rio Grande a year ago, said she immigrated illegally to be with her husband, who lives in the District. She said she called three lawyers, but two wanted $10,000 and one said she could not help. So on a recent morning, Velasco took Metro to a Ballston building, pressed the elevator button marked "PH" for penthouse and ascended to the immigration court, a suite of six small courtrooms.

Just before 10 a.m., she squeezed into Courtroom 4, her red purse carrying a hearing notice outlining her right to an attorney "at no expense to the government."

Judge Garry D. Malphrus was making his way through the master calendar docket, a list of quick preliminary hearings. Case 962 was before him: a 6-year-old girl in a sparkly skirt. To her left sat her attorney. To her right sat her father, who raised his right hand and agreed on his daughter's behalf to "voluntary departure" -- to leave the United States.

The girl's hearing lasted just minutes, and it was unclear why her father conceded that his daughter must go. Immigration lawyers say many of those who appear in the court have no right to stay in the United States -- no employer or legal relative to sponsor their visa, no claim to asylum. But Kerwin and other advocates say confused immigrants often need a lawyer to tell them this, or to determine that they have a case and then make it by, say, arranging expert testimony on a country's human rights record for an asylum case or obtaining documents that prove an immigrant is the child of a U.S. citizen.

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