Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Education of An (Unlikely) Immigrant Advocate

By Robert Chao Romero

When I became a professor at UCLA six years ago I was pretty naïve about the topic of undocumented immigration.  Even though I come from immigrant families from Mexico and China, I had never really been personally touched by this topic.  That all changed several years ago. 

My wife worked in inner city ministry in Los Angeles and had a former student who was apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and facing deportation.   He was looking for an attorney to take his case and I told him, quite naively, “I’ll take your case if no one else will.”   Although I had been a licensed attorney for many years I had never practiced law and my knowledge of immigration law was limited to the classes I taught on the subject.   Little could prepare me for the crazy journey that was to follow.  Over the course of the next year and a half I got a crash course on immigration law, I personally witnessed the brokenness of the U.S. immigration system, and, most importantly, I learned innumerable lessons about God’s love for immigrants. 

Many of the lessons I learned flowed from Proverbs 31:8-9:  “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.  Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

The first lesson I learned is that most immigrants who are going through deportation proceedings cannot speak for themselves because there are no attorneys willing to take their case and be their legal voice.   90% of all immigrants facing deportation have no attorney.   Unlike criminal defense cases, there is no legal requirement that immigrants be provided an attorney to represent them.   When immigrants find themselves in immigration court the judge will often give them a piece of paper with a list of pro bono attorneys and legal aid law firms.  At first blush this piece of paper might give them hope.  After making many phone calls and facing many rejections, however, they learn a harsh reality:  there is a desperate shortage of pro bono attorneys who are willing to take on cases for immigrants.   Unless they can come up with $5,000 or more to hire an attorney, they probably stand little chance of having a fair hearing in court--even if they have a valid legal basis for their claim.   A further sad fact is that there are only a handful of Christian legal non-profit organizations in all of the United States which provide legal services for indigent clients—whether they be immigrants or impoverished U.S. citizens.  Most Christian legal aid organizations focus upon defending the free speech rights of Christians in the public sphere, but virtually none have the representation of the poor as their sole emphasis.  In all of Los Angeles, I found only one Christian legal aid organization (a very good one), but they were unable to take my friend’s case. 

For many immigrants facing deportation, this is often how their trial goes:  he or she sits in the courtroom alone with the judge, ICE attorney, bailiff, and translator.  The ICE attorney speaks harshly and disrespectfully to the immigrant and lays out many legal charges that even a trained lawyer would find difficult to understand.  Although the judge is supposed to be neutral, it often appears that he has teamed up with the ICE attorney against the immigrant.   Without a lawyer to explain the confusing legal charges and provide a defense, the immigrant stands little chance of receiving a fair hearing--even if they have a valid basis for remaining in the U.S.   As a result, thousands of children have been torn away from their immigrant mothers and fathers who have been deported without true access to justice.  

The take home point from this lesson is simple:  we must step up and fulfill the biblical mandate to speak up for immigrants facing deportation and defend their rights.   We need churches to establish legal funds for immigrants and we need Christian lawyers to volunteer their time to take on pro bono cases for immigrants facing deportation.   We also need to fund the few Christian legal non-profit organizations already in existence, as well as create hundreds of new legal aid organizations dedicated to speaking up for immigrants and the poor and defending their rights. 

Robert Chao Romero is an Assistant Professor in the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies.  He received his J.D. from U.C. Berkeley and his Ph.D. in Latin American History from UCLA.  He is the author of The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 and various articles related to race in Latin America and the United States.  

This piece is cross posted at Sojourner's God's Politics Blog.