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Statement by City Bar President Debra L. Raskin Urging Adoption of the Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act

The New York City Bar Association commends Representative Hakeem Jeffries and cosponsors for reintroducing H.R. 1700, the Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act (“VIVA”). The bill would address an astounding due process gap:  under existing law, unaccompanied children routinely appear in immigration court without counsel. According to government data analyzed by Politico, about 59 percent of all unaccompanied children appearing in immigration court since July 2014 were unrepresented. The City Bar strongly supports the effort to ensure fair procedures for children and for adults with mental disabilities, and urges the passage of this bill.

Americans are proud of their judicial system which grants indigent defendants in criminal trials the right to government-appointed counsel. The consequences of immigration removal hearings can be as severe as those of criminal trials, literally resulting in life or death. In a recent study, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees found that at least 58 percent of children arriving from Mexico and Central America had claims to international protection based upon violence or harm experienced in their countries of origin. Yet, asylum-seekers and others seeking protection from violence abroad too often have no access to counsel.

Recent reports have highlighted the absurdity of asking a child to represent herself in a complex court proceeding, while facing off against trained government counsel. Politico found that only seven percent of unaccompanied children who are unrepresented win their cases or have them administratively closed, as compared with 69 percent of children with counsel. Counsel assist children in navigating exceedingly complex legal requirements and procedures and help immigration judges make correct decisions under the law. Attorneys spend many hours building trust and preparing children to recount deeply traumatic experiences to prove their right to asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or other protection.

Counsel is a critical component of due process in all removal proceedings. Deporting children or people with serious mental disabilities without legal representation is fundamentally unfair and violates basic American values.

Counsel also makes a difference in the efficiency of court proceedings: The Immigration Policy Center found that children who are represented by an attorney are almost three times more likely to appear in court than those without counsel. The National Economic Research Associates (NERA) has found that appointed counsel in removal proceedings would result in more efficient proceedings, reduced detention, and lower foster care and transportation outlays—savings that could equal the cost of the program. Providing appointed counsel for all persons in removal proceedings thus makes proceedings faster and fairer without increasing the cost to taxpayers.

The City Bar supports a right to appointed counsel in removal proceedings, and VIVA is an important first step.