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Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center applauds U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's withdrawal of an earlier decision by his predecessor, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, which undercut immigrants' rights to competent legal counsel.

Mukasey's ruling imposed significant challenges and additional burdens for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who sought to reopen deportation orders because they had received ineffective legal counsel or were victims of immigration fraud. That earlier decision, Matter of Compean, rolled back more than 20 years of precedent and stated that non-citizens did not have a constitutional, statutory or regulatory right to effective assistance of counsel. Mukasey restructured the process by which immigrants appeal deportation orders and raised the burden for non-citizens to show that ineffective counsel had negatively affected their cases. Furthermore, Mukasey ruled that even if all requirements were met, the Board of Immigration Appeals or the immigration judge would still have discretion over whether to reopen a case.

"Access to legal counsel and a fair day in court are the pillars of the U.S. justice system," said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director, Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center. "We are pleased that Attorney General Holder acknowledges that men, women, and children facing deportation have a right to effective legal counsel, and that if they lose their case because they are misled by an incompetent or fraudulent attorney, they have a right to appeal a negative decision."

Holder's decision is particularly significant for refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable immigrants for whom a deportation order may be a death sentence.

"We have many clients who would be in serious danger if they lost their immigration cases because they were represented by incompetent or ineffective counsel," McCarthy said. "Our clients can face torture, abuse, or even death if they are forced to return to their native countries."

Holder directed the head of the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review to establish a new framework for reviewing motions to reopen immigration proceedings based on claims of ineffective assistance, and encouraged the agency to afford "all interested parties a full and fair opportunity to participate."

The National Immigrant Justice Center welcomes the opportunity to work with Attorney General Holder to develop a framework that ensures the preservation of basic due process and human rights for immigrants.


Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center is a Chicago-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. For more information visit