Immigrants are excluded from the right to legal representation. It's time to change that.

Ibrahima Keita waited outside the immigration court for hours, but his attorney never came to accompany him to his asylum hearing. Inside, an immigration judge marked Keita a no-show and ordered his deportation. He didn’t know he could attend the hearing by himself and ask for a “continuance.” He didn’t know it was a day that would forever change his life, after many years of building a life in the United States.

Keita's is just one of many families separated due to the lack of legal representation. Last year, there were nearly 4 million people in immigration court facing deportation, 70% of whom lacked legal representation.

Of the approximately 250,000 people who were ordered deported last year, 74% lacked legal representation.

Protest outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 2020.
Protest outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 2020.

Anyone navigating a complex legal process that has life-altering consequences, like immigration court, should have a trained legal adviser at their side. It’s this principle that led the Supreme Court to rule unanimously 61 years ago in Gideon v. Wainwright that people facing criminal charges have the right to legal representation. But those principles don’t apply to civil immigration court matters – at least not yet.

Universal representation for immigrants is possible – regardless of immigration status and ability to pay for an attorney. And states and cities across the country think so, too: More than 55 jurisdictions have already established publicly funded deportation defense programs.

And last year, Congress introduced the Fairness to Freedom Act, which would secure the legal right to an attorney for immigrants facing deportation and family separation.

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'Now everything is upside down.' Our immigration system fails families.

The immigration system and unreliable legal representation failed Keita when they ordered his deportation in 1997. He fought to remain in the United States by re-filing for asylum and later regularly attending his required Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins until 2016, when his check-ins were deemed no longer necessary because of changes to the government’s removal priorities.

By this point, he had spent nearly 30 years in the United States, working as a delivery driver, paying taxes and starting a family. He and his wife, Neissa Kone, were raising two young sons. But then the life he had built all came crashing down: The Trump administration changed the U.S. government’s deportation priorities and carried out Keita’s removal in 2018.

ICE arrested Keita outside his home, car keys in hand, as he was about to drive his boys to school. Neissa and their sons witnessed it all. “We never asked for help. We had a good life, a nice house in the suburbs, he worked so hard. Now everything is upside down,” she said.

From inside the ICE jail, Keita and a new legal team tried everything they could think of to stop his deportation. But the Trump administration was focused on sending him to Mali – despite the dangers and persecution Keita had fled – and they did so in 2019 after he had spent an entire year in ICE detention. Keita’s new lawyers could not reverse the deportation set in motion when his first attorney failed to show up 20 years prior.

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Lawyers are necessities, not luxuries

If Keita had been guaranteed the right to a lawyer by his side throughout his legal battle to remain in the United States, this family’s pain would likely be behind them. Now, Keita says, “I cry a lot. I think about my two kids. Sometimes I can’t even talk about it because it makes me sad. I worked hard for everything I got. Very hard. ... I lost everything. ... I’m a family man. I take care of my wife, my two boys. I work every day: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, seven days (a week). I just want to take care of my two kids.”

Keita and his family deserve to be together today, as do tens of thousands of other families like theirs who have been torn apart by immigration enforcement and little to no legal representation.

Annie Chen
Annie Chen

And it doesn't have to be this way − just as it was decided 61 years ago for people facing life-altering legal battles in criminal court, “Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”

The same should apply in immigration court, where the stakes are just as high.

Nicole Melaku
Nicole Melaku

Immigrants deserve their fair day in court with an attorney by their side. The Fairness to Freedom Act would secure this right, ensuring immigrants like Keita understand their rights under U.S. laws, are more fairly equipped to make their case, stay rooted in their communities with their families and remain in this country they’ve come to call home.

Annie Chen is the director of the Advancing Universal Representation initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice. Nicole Melaku is the executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Immigrants aren't entitled to lawyers in court. Our system fails them