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Access to legal counsel proves challenging for immigrants

You would never notice it if you were walking by, because there are no signs, but San Francisco's immigration court is on the eighth and ninth floors of a nondescript office building here on Montgomery Street in the city's financial district. Immigrants can get a notice to appear here if they are facing deportation or applying for asylum. The people outside are here without lawyers. When I asked a man if he had a lawyer, he told me he wasn't sure if they'd let him see a judge or not.

But this man, who didn’t give his name, will be able to speak with a judge. In fact, anyone here today for the first time will be represented by a volunteer attorney from the bar association of San Francisco.

But after that first hearing, they’ll need to find an attorney on their own if they want to be represented. Most won’t, even though research shows immigrants who have lawyers are much more likely to prove they have a right to be here. For many, it’s just not possible – most private attorneys charge four to 10 thousand dollars for a deportation defense.

While the court doesn’t offer attorneys, it is required to distribute a list of free legal service providers so low-income immigrants can find lawyers.

"This list is updated quarterly and it's posted on our website and it's also individually distributed to non-citizens who are in proceedings before our court,” says Robin Stutman, who works for the body that oversees the immigration court. “Certainly I would think that would be a very valuable resource for people who don’t have the means to pay for attorneys to represent them."

Sure enough, a clerk on the eighth floor slides a couple sheets of paper across the counter as soon as I ask. I do my own dialing to see whether the nine organizations listed are taking new clients.

The first one is San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus, where I reach attorney Joren Lyons. He says on average, three or four people a day call seeking help after seeing his organization’s name on the list. But he says the Asian Law Caucus is already handling close to a hundred deportation defense cases.

"And that is about our limit. We are pretty much at a point that we can’t take a new case until we finish an old case, unless there is something particularly urgent or compelling," Lyons told me.

Lyons says all nonprofit legal groups are facing the same problem: “There is no way that even every service provider that has any competency in immigration law, taking every case they could possibly stretch themselves to take, there is no way even that could meet the demand for representation by people who can not afford a private attorney. It is just beyond all conceivable capacity. "

So instead, many organizations have decided to focus on offering advice. One of them is the nonprofit International Institute of the Bay Area. At its Oakland office, attorney Susan Bowyer is seeing clients in a cramped room stuffed with files and papers.

Bowyer’s organization pulled itself off the court’s list of free service providers. She says it was too heartbreaking to keep turning away people searching for a free attorney.

"And when someone calls us and we say no, we can’t help you, we know they have already talked to five agencies and they have heard that same answer from those agencies, and then they are going to call another five, and get the same answer," Bowyer tells me.

Bowyer says she wishes she could offer free representation in court to more people facing deportation, but she doesn’t have the resources. Working on just one deportation defense case costs the organization a thousand dollars. Asylum claims are even more expensive. But Bowyer says it’s nearly impossible to find foundation support or grants to support that work: "There isn’t that kind of funding, there is not general, humanitarian, legal service funding available."

Bowyer helps immigrants determine whether to hire a private attorney. "People often can borrow money,” she says, “and it’s just a question of whether it’s worth it to borrow that money. Do you want to be in debt for the next five years – or, if you get in debt for five years, is it really going to save you from deportation, or is it?" says Bowyer.

When immigrants hire private lawyers, they also run the risk of exploitation. Some attorneys have taken advantage of unsuspecting immigrants by charging high fees on cases they can’t win. So, for some low-income defendants in immigration court, access to an affordable and trustworthy attorney may be nearly impossible.

This story originally aired on February 1, 2010. Joren Lyons is now an immigration judge in San Francisco and Susan Bowyer is now the Deputy Director of the Immigration Center for Women and Children. Anoop Prasad, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, says his office receives even more calls daily now for immigration assistance than they did in 2010, when the story first aired. 

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