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The Right to Representation

How Can the Asylum System Be Fixed?

Published in: The New York Times

The obvious fix to an "asylum industry" that allows con artists and misguided amateur representatives to prosper is to lift the bar on court-appointed legal representatives and give asylum seekers the same rights to legal representation that criminal suspects enjoy. Asylum seekers' right to legal representation in the immigration courts is currently "at no expense to the government," yet, in truth, a system that in effect promotes bad legal advice not only does a disservice to refugees, with potentially life-and-death consequences, but also ends up costing the government by clogging the system with erroneous decisions and inefficiencies.

Denying indigent asylum seekers court-appointed legal representation has ended up costing the taxpayer more, not less.

The current system not only prohibits government-funded legal representation but also bars asylum seekers from working for the first six months after they apply. So, all but the independently wealthy (or the lucky few who get pro bono representation) are severely handicapped in finding decent legal representation. This is fundamentally unfair to people who are not only victims of persecution but poor to boot.

The old adage "you get what you pay for" is as true with respect to the asylum system as it is for other walks of life. If Americans are outraged by fraud and unfairness and want an asylum system that efficiently weeds out the undeserving and provides refuge to those truly in need of protection, they can't get it on the cheap.

Amending the statutory prohibition and appropriating more money at a time of budgetary austerity certainly looks like a hard sell. But denying indigent asylum seekers court-appointed legal representation has proved not only to be a false economy but a shameful taint on American principles of fundamental fairness and good governance.

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