A group of Illinois immigration legal aid organizations today announced a new collaboration to expand access to legal representation for people in deportation proceedings who are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The Midwest Immigrant Defenders Alliance (MIDA) is a partnership between three nonprofit organizations — the National Immigrant Justice Center, The Resurrection Project, and The Immigration Project — and the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender. Through a one-year pilot project, the groups will lay the groundwork toward ensuring anyone who is detained by ICE and facing removal proceedings before the Chicago Immigration Court has access to legal representation. The program will reach immigrants detained in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Kentucky. While ICE no longer detains people in Illinois as the result of a state law enacted earlier this year, the groups will be representing Illinois residents who are being detained in other states.
“The National Immigrant Justice Center has represented detained people facing deportation for more than 30 years and we are thrilled for this opportunity to collaborate with organizations who have been longtime partners in defending justice to build a model that will ensure our community members have access to legal counsel when in the throes of the punitive immigration system,” said Ruben Loyo, associate director, Detention Project, at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “We see this as the natural next step in our state to support immigrant families, and an opportunity for Illinois to join the ranks of other states like New York and California whose universal representation programs have demonstrated how ensuring access to affordable legal counsel both upholds justice and helps keep families and communities strong and intact.”
“Too often immigrants from rural and urban communities in central and southern Illinois feel isolated and marginalized while they are facing the highest possible stakes — separation from their families and, often, possible persecution in a country they may have not seen in decades,” said Charlotte Alvarez, executive director of The Immigration Project. “MIDA is a natural expansion of our current advocacy and legal representation work and will allow us to ensure that individuals who were ripped from our downstate communities are able to obtain legal counsel to pursue every possible avenue available to them under the law in order to return to their family.”
During the pilot, one day each week, any detained and unrepresented individual who has an initial hearing before the Chicago Immigration Court and cannot afford private counsel will have the opportunity to consult with one of the collaborating organizations and receive free legal representation while they are detained — and potentially longer if they reside in Illinois. The collaborative also will provide training and mentorship programs to welcome new legal practitioners into the immigration field, an effort to increase capacity for nonprofit organizations to provide affordable immigration defense services in the Midwest. Vera Institute of Justice, a nongovernmental research group, will track the case outcomes from the pilot project to evaluate its impact on ensuring justice for people facing removal proceedings in Chicago.
“Everyone has the right to due process, including immigrants, and immigrants should also have the right to an attorney if they can’t afford one — especially those in detention that face many more barriers to a successful case outcome,” said Eréndira Rendón, vice president of immigrant justice at The Resurrection Project (TRP). “MIDA will increase capacity of community-based legal service providers like TRP to ensure detained immigrants have free, high-quality, and accessible legal services. The more organizations trained and available to support with these complex cases, the closer we are to securing universal representation for all."
“The launch of MIDA proves that the national movement for universal representation is only getting stronger as people across the country continue to demand that no one should face deportation without a lawyer,” said Annie Chen, director of the Advancing Universal Representation initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice. “People facing deportation are our neighbors, friends, and loved ones. They deserve to fight their cases freely in their communities and with a lawyer by their side. As Illinois becomes the latest state to support a right to counsel for all, we are honored to work with MIDA to help them evaluate their program’s impact and are confident it can serve as a model for the state’s anticipated task force.”
Removal proceedings can have dire consequences for many immigrants, including permanent separation from U.S. citizen children, spouses, and parents, as well as the loss of integral community members. In some cases, deportation may result in someone being sent to a country where they face persecution or death. Yet individuals in these proceedings do not have access to government-appointed legal counsel like defendants in other parts of the U.S. legal system. A 2016 study found that detained immigrants with legal counsel are twice as likely to obtain relief than detained immigrants without counsel. In recent years, approximately 60 percent of detained individuals have been unrepresented in the Chicago court.
The partnership between nonprofit legal aid organizations and the Immigration Unit Pilot of the Cook County Public Defender, one of the largest public defender’s offices in the country, is in part intended to chip away at racial disparities that permeate the U.S. immigration system. Black, Indigenous, and other immigrants of color are disproportionately targeted for criminal arrest, which significantly affects an immigrant’s ability to remain in the United States. Working together, public defenders and immigration counsel have the best chance of ensuring immigrants’ rights are upheld throughout the course of their legal proceedings. Advocates also believe that universal representation models advance racial equity by mitigating biases during the initial triage of cases, when service providers usually must decide who is most deserving of services.
MIDA’s launch comes just weeks after the Illinois General Assembly passed the Right to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings Act (SB 3144), which will create a task force to provide recommendations for how the state can move toward providing legal representation for all Illinoisans facing deportation. The legislation was the latest in a series of state laws championed by Illinois communities and supported by the General Assembly and Governor J.B. Pritzker in recent years to defend immigrant Illinoisans against unjust deportation. After years of advocacy to close immigrant detention centers in Illinois, in January the Illinois Way Forward Act took effect to prevent ICE from detaining immigrants within the state. MIDA seeks to ensure Illinois residents continue to have access to counsel even as ICE increasingly detains immigrants in remote detention centers that often lack local legal resources.
Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) ensures human rights protections for low-income immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, with the goal of promoting access to justice, family integrity, and community safety. With offices in Chicago, Indiana, Washington, D.C., and San Diego, NIJC provides direct legal services to and advocates for these populations through impact litigation, public education, and policy reform. NIJC’s immigration legal services are organized into distinct projects, including a Detention Project that for years has served detained immigrants in the Midwest. Visit immigrantjustice.org and follow @NIJC on Twitter.
The Immigration Project (TIP) has secured access to justice alongside immigrant communities in downstate Illinois for over 25 years. With offices in the Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana areas, TIP maintains an extensive network of staff, partner organizations, and specially trained community member volunteers to provide legal and social services to immigrant families residing in the 86 counties that comprise its service area.TIP works with and for immigrant communities in mutuality and interdependence to build a more just future for all. Visit www.immigrationproject.org.
The Resurrection Project (TRP) builds relationships and challenges individuals to act on their faith, values, and ideals to create healthier communities. Since its founding in 1990, TRP has increased the availability of services and expanded opportunities for Chicago’s low- and moderate-income Latinos. TRP is a trusted provider of culturally and linguistically inclusive services and helps enable families to fully participate and become invested in their communities. TRP serves families from all over the Chicago metropolitan region, though it has a deeply rooted presence in the predominantly Latino and immigrant communities of Pilsen, Little Village, and Back of the Yards.
Through the work of the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender (CCPD) Immigration Unit Pilot, Cook County is the largest county in the nation to provide public defenders to serve the immigrant communities that do not have access to attorneys. In early 2022, Governor JB Pritzker signed Public Act 102-0410 into law and the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in support of this initiative. This authorized the defender’s office to begin representing noncitizens in removal proceedings.