As a volunteer member of the “Scope of Services” subcommittee, I am very proud to have played a small role in the creation of Denver’s Immigrant Defense Fund. As the name suggests, our subcommittee was tasked with making recommendations on the types of services this fund could aim to provide.
The genesis of Denver’s Immigrant Defense Fund is in the recognition that our city is enriched by the talents, work, and culture of all of its residents. Immigrants, their families, and families of mixed immigration statuses are under increasing threat of potential removal from this country and from our community.
When a resident of Denver is removed from the country, it inevitably impacts their family and community. The city itself feels the impact, not only with the loss of the individual, but in the potential increased need for city services and resources for those left behind. With stakes this high, Denver knows it must ensure its residents receive all protections of the law to which they are entitled.
Immigrants in deportation proceedings have the right to due process. They have the right to examine evidence, present evidence, cross-examine government witnesses, and apply for relief from deportation. Qualifying non-citizens have the right to apply to adjust to green card status, including during removal proceedings. Undocumented immigrants have the right to apply to cancel their deportation proceedings and get a green card to remain here with their families if they meet certain criteria. Those who fear persecution if they return to a foreign country have a right to a full evidentiary hearing on application for asylum.
Deportation from the United States, while technically a civil and not criminal process, has long been recognized as a particularly severe penalty. But immigration law is not easy to navigate. Immigration laws have been termed “second only to the Internal Revenue Code in complexity.” A lawyer is often the only person who can effectively navigate the labyrinth. While those in removal proceedings have a right to counsel, there is no equivalent to a public defender. Those who cannot pay for a lawyer or find one who will do their case for free are forced to represent themselves. Statistics show that those who represent themselves can be over ten times less likely to win their case compared to those who have an attorney.
The federal government has an important interest in enforcing immigration laws. The city of Denver has no less important an interest in ensuring that its residents are afforded all of the rights and possible remedies to give them a fighting chance. Ultimately, the decisions about whether individuals will be granted lawful status will fall to the appropriate judges or immigration officials under federal law. With its Immigrant Legal Defense fund, the city of Denver seeks to ensure that its residents will get the legal counsel needed to have a meaningful chance to present their case to stay here, to get legal status, and to keep families together.
The launch of Denver’s Immigrant Legal Defense demonstrates the city’s resolve to protect the rights of its residents in the face of increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement from the federal government. Seeing the leadership it took to get this off the ground left me inspired by city leaders, staff, and fellow-volunteers and more committed than ever to fight for the rights of immigrants and their families every day.
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