Despite current administration rhetoric — echoed Tuesday night during a State of the Union address that blamed many of the country’s problems on people attempting to cross the border — immigrants contribute to the social and economic vitality of this nation. And the unprecedented and cruelly indiscriminate detentions and deportations of the past two years do not make us any safer or our country more stable.
Instead, those practices erode the American value of due process, contribute to a racist, fearmongering anti-immigrant agenda and bring chaos to communities.
There’s a reality that starkly contrasts the State of the Union’s words: Immigrants (documented and undocumented) contribute greatly to our society, and their absence would lead to dire consequences. In 2014 alone, immigrants contributed $105 billion in combined state and local taxes and $224 billion on the federal level.
But in the midst of this chaos, a movement is building. There are legal aid programs popping up all over the country (supported by state and local governments) that are helping to keep immigrants in danger of deportation in the country. Groups in Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York are already making a dent. And as the administration cranks up its fight for a border wall and deportation, it’s clear that we need more of these groups to help ensure the rights of the millions already living here and others seeking safety.
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A common misperception is that only undocumented immigrants can face deportation. In fact, any noncitizen — including green-card holders, refugees and people who entered legally on visas — can be placed in deportation proceedings.
Rapper 21 Savage, who is originally from the United Kingdom but has been in the United States since he was a child, faces possible deportation over visa-related issues.
There are 45 million immigrants in the country today, and 18 million children in the country have at least one immigrant parent. The vast majority of these children — 88 percent — are U.S. citizens. Twenty-four million immigrants have lived in the United States for more than 15 years, and 9 million are homeowners.
These folks are your neighbors and your co-workers. Their children go to school with yours, and they own businesses in your community.
Eight million people in the United States are employed by immigrant-owned firms, and 44 percent of U.S. Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Despite the vast ways immigrants are immersed in our daily lives, 23 million are at risk of deportation, and there are more than 800,000 people facing deportation with pending cases in immigration court.
Even though life-or-death stakes often come with deportation, there is no constitutional guarantee to legal representation in immigration court for people who cannot afford a lawyer. As a result, nearly 70 percent of detained immigrants face the terrifying prospect of permanent separation from their families and communities while trying to navigate the complexities of U.S. immigration law on their own. Too many have valid legal claims to remain in this country but no feasible way to articulate these claims without legal counsel.
Access to legal counsel makes a difference. In the first year of the Vera Institute’s SAFE (Safety and Fairness for Everyone) Network program — which offers legal representation in Columbus, Ohio; San Antonio, Texas; Oakland, California; Baltimore, Maryland; and other cities — 38 percent of cases represented by attorneys and completed in immigration court were successful, permitting clients to remain in the United States. By comparison, only approximately 3 percent of unrepresented cases nationwide are successful.
Legal representation ensures that those with valid claims to stay in the United States are not erroneously deported simply because they can not afford a lawyer.
These local legal representation programs have the potential to generate benefits for their communities. The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, the first publicly funded universal representation program in the nation, projected a $2.7 million annual increase in tax revenue due to clients gaining or maintaining work authorization.
Instead of seeking to divide us with false and discriminatory narrative about immigrants, the public and lawmakers should instead seek to turn outrage into proven effective and constructive reforms that ensure due process and protect our communities.
Publicly funded legal representation for all is a crucial last line of defense to keep families and communities together. It injects fairness into a broken immigration system. When we bring basic due process to our justice system, more children can remain with their parents. More people can bring valuable and necessary skills into our workforce. And more communities can maintain the stability, cohesion and diversity necessary to thrive.
Annie Chen is the program director for the SAFE (Safety and Fairness for Everyone) Network at the Vera Institute of Justice.