When Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Defenders for All Act in August 2021, it was the culmination of a yearslong fight by advocacy organizations to provide access to free legal representation in deportation proceedings to non-citizens.
The act took effect at the beginning of this year. Since then, the Cook County Public Defenders’ immigration unit says it’s taken on over a dozen cases free of charge — the largest county in the nation to do so.
“Immigrants continue to be put in process of deportation. About 70% of immigrants don’t have attorneys when they’re going through this,” said Ere Rendon of The Resurrection Project. “So we’re really not protecting the due process immigrants have. Immigrants have the right to counsel, and we do believe not having the funds to pay 10, 15 thousand for a private attorney should not keep people from having adequate and ethical legal representation.”
The project is still in its early phases but has plans in place for scaling up to meet need.
“We’re still a pilot unit and have three attorneys and one paralegal. If a person does not have the resources to pay for an attorney we can consider their case. If they are detained by immigration and they have any Cook County ties we will consider their case,” said Guadalupe Perez, an attorney in the immigration unit. “We’ve started collaborating with the Midwest Immigrant Defenders Alliance in order to increase our capacity. This is a new initiative as well in which several legal aid organizations go into court once a week to observe hearings, and if anyone is unrepresented and it’s their first master calendar hearing then we can consider taking on their case as part of this coalition as well.”
Representation regardless of outcome is the true goal of the program, said Rendon.
“Only 5% of folks who are unrepresented win their immigration case, so we know that representation goes a long way in ensuring if somebody has the option to stay – maybe they’re married to a U.S. citizen, maybe their child is a U.S. citizen and they’re eligible for cancellation. Perhaps the have a claim for a U visa because they themselves have been a victim of crime in the past,” she said. 'You really need an attorney to be able to navigate that, to tell you about your rights, to tell you about what you can apply for, and then to be actively putting in those petitions. There is a need for folks to know what their options are, to guide them through the process so even if you are going to be … deported, you still want to know what the process is, what to expect. This is a life-changing situation when folks are detained, and so knowing how long you may be detained, all of that affects the individual as well as their family.”