The sanctuary city of Philadelphia and a New York-based justice institute outlined a plan Tuesday to provide lawyers to undocumented immigrants facing deportation — often a determining factor in whether they are able to stay in the United States and fight on in the courts, or are quickly shipped out of the country.
Mayor Kenney made the announcement at the National Constitution Center, joined by Vera Institute executives, City Councilwoman Helen Gym, and more than two dozen legal advocates and workers for migrant rights. He said the program would help “Philadelphia remain a place where everyone, including immigrants, feels safe and welcome.”
The undocumented population in the U.S. is estimated at 11 million, with 50,000 in Philadelphia.
For immigrants facing deportation, the Vera Institute, a nonprofit national research and policy organization based in New York City, created what it calls the SAFE network — Safety & Fairness for Everyone. It works to ensure that they have legal representation, much like the public-defense system in criminal courts.
In immigration court, defendants generally do not have the right to court-appointed counsel. Even young children can be forced to serve as their own lawyers.
In its first year, 38 percent of those represented by SAFE lawyers were able to remain in the U.S. while their cases progressed through the courts. By comparison, only about 3 percent of those without representation were successful, according to the institute.
“The SAFE Network means that everyone at risk of deportation should have access to due process and a fair day in court,” the institute said in a statement.
The effort in Philadelphia comes at a moment when coalitions of political figures, scholars, immigration advocates, and philanthropic organizations have begun to push for a public-defender system for poor immigrants facing deportation.
The numbers are stark, as laid out in a 2015 University of Pennsylvania Law Review study, which examined more than 1.2 million deportation cases decided between 2007 and 2012.
Only 37 percent of all immigrants, and a mere 14 percent of detained immigrants, had access to legal representation. Lawyers were particularly hard to find in rural areas and small cities, where almost a third of detained cases were decided, the study said.
But the outcomes for those with lawyers were undeniably more favorable: In similar removal cases, the odds were five and a half times greater that migrants with representation could obtain relief from removal.
The court system benefited too, the Penn study said.
Those with counsel brought fewer unmeritorious claims, were more likely to be released from custody and, once released, were more likely to appear at their future deportation hearings.
In Philadelphia, the initial funding for the program will be $200,000, to be divided between the city and the Vera Institute.
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