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Last November, my colleague Clara Long and I traveled to Jena, Louisiana, to interview people detained at LaSalle Detention Center, an immigration detention facility in rural, central Louisiana. Before we left, we decided to reach out to local immigration attorneys to hear what their experiences had been representing individuals in LaSalle. We found three within a two-hour drive of LaSalle.

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So, we were not surprised to discover that few of the people we talked to at LaSalle – which holds almost 1,000 detainees - had attorneys. Without representation, the people we met had little help in navigating a byzantine immigration system whose laws and policies are so complex. It’s incredibly difficult to get a fair hearing without legal counsel. And unlike the criminal justice system, the United States immigration system does not provide a “public defender” for those unable to afford an attorney.

They included people fleeing persecution in their home countries and long-term residents of the US, including green card holders, facing permanent separation from their families, who without counsel could have a strong case for staying in the US.

Melida Ruiz, a lawful permanent resident, pictured with her daughter, Mercedez Ruiz, and her grandson, Christopher Gonzalez. In 2011, Melida was held in immigration detention for seven months while she fought deportation based on a 2002 misdemeanor drug conviction, her sole conviction in more than 30 years in the United States. © 2013 Platon for Human Rights Watch

The due process crisis of immigrants in deportation proceedings without attorneys is not limited to those who are held in rural, central Louisiana. The California Coalition for Universal Representation today released a report that shows seven out of 10 detained immigrants in California don’t have legal representation. More critically, detained immigrants who have attorneys were five times more likely to have successful outcomes in their case, according the report’s analysis of court records.

Human Rights Watch, along with the California Coalition for Universal Representation, is calling on California state and local governments to create programs to ensure all immigrants are able to get a fair hearing. We know such programs are feasible: Since 2014, New York city has fully funded the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project to provide representation to all city resident immigrants detained while in immigration proceedings; the program was set up after a report found severe disparities in outcomes between represented and unrepresented detained immigrants.

The problem of lack of counsel for detained immigrants in the US is a national one, but California, which together with Arizona and Texas hold 68 percent of all immigrant detainees, should provide counsel to all detained immigrants to protect due process and keep families together.

Los Angeles residents can urge the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to create such a program, do so here.  

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