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New National Program Provides Legal Information to Immigrants in Court without Lawyers

Any immigrant who arrives for a hearing at the Chicago Immigration Court without a lawyer starting in August will have access to legal rights information as a result of a significant expansion of the National Immigrant Justice Center’s (NIJC) Immigration Court Helpdesk.

With new funding from the Department of Justice, the expansion will allow NIJC immigration lawyers to provide group and individual information sessions in English and Spanish at the immigration court, as well as legal referrals. NIJC launched its self-help desk in 2013 with support from the Chicago Bar Foundation and Illinois Bar Foundation and has since served approximately 2,600 immigrants who faced court hearings without legal representation.

“The Immigration Court Helpdesk roll-out is an important step to improve access to counsel and due process for immigrants,” said NIJC Executive Director Mary Meg McCarthy. “Non-detained immigrants with representation are almost six times more likely to win their cases compared to those without representation. Whether immigrants can exercise their legal rights should not depend on whether they can afford a lawyer.”

NIJC is one of five legal service providers across the country who received inaugural federal funding to operate an Immigration Court Helpdesk. Congress allocated $1 million for the program in fiscal year 2016, partly modeled after NIJC’s privately funded help desk. NIJC thanks U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) for his leadership to establish the program and the Executive Office for Immigration Review for its rapid implementation. In addition to Chicago, an Immigration Court Helpdesk will open in New York City, Miami, San Antonio, and Los Angeles.

“I am thrilled that the NIJC Immigration Court Helpdesk in Chicago has received this federal grant to expand their services,” said Rep. Quigley. “The immigration help desks have proven to be very effective in ensuring that immigrants and their families receive vital legal resources and information. Expanding these services with the help of newly dedicated federal funding will make the system easier to navigate and help guarantee all individuals receive equal treatment under our legal system.”

In Chicago, immigration judges frequently refer Central American women and children and other asylum seekers to NIJC’s help desk when they appear at hearings without lawyers, confused by the complex system they must navigate to gain protection. About 95 percent of the immigrants who have received legal advice through NIJC’s pilot help desk were at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and more than 75 percent have been potentially eligible for legal relief.

“The expansion of the Chicago Immigration Court Helpdesk makes Illinois a leader in supporting immigrants who come to this country seeking safety and security,” said Illinois Bar Foundation President Elizabeth A. Kaveny, partner at Burke Wise Morrissey Kaveny. “When people understand their rights, the system works better for everyone.”

“The Chicago Immigration Court Helpdesk provides valuable assistance for immigrants who have nowhere else to turn and at the same time makes the immigration court function more efficiently and effectively for everyone,” said Chicago Bar Foundation Executive Director Bob Glaves. “Having provided the initial seed funding to launch the desk here, we were thrilled to learn that this new program will make it possible both to increase the assistance offered in Chicago and to expand the model to other parts of the country.”

In fiscal year 2014, 45 percent of immigrants in deportation proceedings nationwide did not have legal representation. For children, having lawyers is even more critical. Among children with representation, 73 percent are allowed to remain in the United States whereas only 15 percent of unrepresented children are allowed to stay. Helping immigrants understand their legal rights also makes court hearings more efficient – a critical need at a time when the national immigration court backlog has reached nearly 500,000 cases.