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For immigrants fighting deportation, a push for government-funded lawyers

A rally against deporting illegal immigrants last month in New York City. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly 4,000 immigrants in the Washington region face deportation every year without a lawyer, according to a report that calls on area governments to follow the lead of New York and Los Angeles and provide funding for legal aid to immigrants.

The Center for Popular Democracy, a national nonprofit organization, analyzed thousands of deportation cases at immigration courts in Baltimore and Arlington and found that immigrants were far more likely to prevail if they had a lawyer.

Emily Tucker, an attorney at the center, said the D.C. area is ripe for a legal-aid program, since it is home to the seventh-largest concentration of immigrants in the United States.

Where immigrants in the D.C. area come from

Most noncitizen households, which include immigrants here illegally, earn less than $40,000 a year, according to census data.

In January, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced $500,000 in grants to help defend immigrants in court, but advocates say a more robust public and private partnership is needed. Unlike with the criminal-justice system, immigrants who cannot afford a lawyer to fight deportation proceedings are not entitled to one at the government's expense.

“They’re facing permanent exile from their home, permanent separation from their families, friends and their community,” Tucker said. “Short of long-term incarceration or the death penalty, deportation is one of the most devastating consequences that can befall you in the American legal system.”

Nationwide, more than 86 percent of detained immigrants are without a lawyer for deportation proceedings, the report said. Many are jailed in remote locations, have limited access to law books and are not fluent in English.

Critics of illegal immigration say state and local governments should not spend taxpayer money to shield people from deportation. They also note that even legal residents of the United States are not entitled to free lawyers in civil proceedings, such as divorce court.

“It’s already hard enough to deport illegal immigrants who really deserve to be deported,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration. “The mission of the immigration bar is to obstruct enforcement of the immigration laws, and this is just a way of doing this for pay, or doing it for more pay.”

Undocumented woman, wife of U.S. veteran, weighs risk of being deported

Advocacy groups counter that among those facing deportation are asylum seekers who fear for their lives, as well as human-trafficking victims and green-card holders who need legal aid.

Many immigrants might be eligible to stay in the United States, the report found, but are unable to make their case in court.

The center analyzed thousands of deportation cases obtained from the courts under the Freedom of Information Act. From 2010 to 2015, 29 percent of detained immigrants whose cases were heard in Arlington had lawyers. The number who had lawyers in Baltimore immigration court was 19 percent.

Eleven percent of detainees in Arlington who represented themselves won their cases, compared with 25 percent who had a lawyer. In Baltimore, 7 percent of detainees won their cases, compared with 29 percent who had a lawyer.

The report, a joint effort by the National Immigration Law Center and the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, comes at a time when President Trump has pledged to increase deportations and to triple the number of immigration agents.

Communities such as Los Angeles have responded by creating a legal-aid fund for immigrants, with $5 million from the city and county governments and an additional $5 million they said they plan to raise in private donations. New York also has a deportation-defense program, which began in 2013; advocates say the program has significantly improved immigrants’ chances of winning their cases.

The Southern Poverty Law Center last month announced a project to train lawyers to offer pro-bono legal representation to detainees in the Southeastern United States.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that nearly 4,000 detained immigrants in the Washington region face deportation every year without a lawyer. The story has been updated to reflect that the 4,000 immigrants are a mix of detained and not detained.