Immigration Court is simultaneously much less dramatic and much more intimidating than I could have ever imagined. Standing at the back of line people stuck in removal proceedings, I can’t help but wonder how many people here have legal representation. Chances are not many. Maybe not even one.
Immigration offenses are not classified as criminal offenses. Legally, anyone charged with a criminal offense has the right to free legal counsel. Those finding themselves threatened with removal, then, are left to find counsel for themselves. If they have money or are lucky enough to get a pro bono lawyer, then great. More often than not, they are not so fortunate. This means that individuals have to go into court and go up against a DHS lawyer and judge. These are individuals who often don’t speak English as a first language, and who usually have little knowledge about legal proceedings, much less the complex intricacies of immigration law.
One way this harrowing process is somewhat mitigated is through the Immigration Help Desk. The Help Desk is a federally-funded project that essentially operates as legal triage. When people come to immigration court, they are reference to the help desk. There, lawyers will briefly break down what will happen in court and, after hearing people’s immigration stories, explain what are potential options for them (e.g. applying for asylum). These lawyers, however can inform, but not advise, nor can they ultimately serve as legal representation for these individuals.
On the one hand, the work being done by the Help Desk is admirable and without it, individuals would be completely lost. However, it is certainly not enough. Moreover, I can’t help but wonder if the Help Desk might serve a more sinister purpose. The fact that the Help Desk is funded by the government indicates that it’s within the state’s interest to do so. If we are to be optimistic, we can interpret this interest as one to promote justice or demystify the confusion of the immigration proceedings. If we are to be more cynical, supporting the Help Desk is a federal cop-out. By supporting the Help Desks, the state can make it appear as if it’s making an active effort to ensure a just process while failing to actually do so by denying immigrants in removal proceedings the right to legal counsel.
The Help Desk certainly helps in the way a band-aid does, but you can’t mend a broken bone with a band-aid. I’m glad the app Help Desk exists, but the fact that it gives the space to the make a disingenuous claim to justice is concerning.