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March 01, 2013

ABA president urges immigration reform

Emphasizes importance of access to counsel

Citing an immigration system “plagued with problems at every level,” ABA President Laurel G. Bellows urged enactment last month of comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

What is needed, Bellows said in a Feb. 13 statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, is reform that “fairly and realistically addresses the U.S. undocumented population, the need for immigrant labor, the value of family reunification, and the importance of an effective and humane immigration enforcement strategy.”

Bellows submitted the statement for the record of a hearing called by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who said that now is the time for immigration reform.  The hearing followed the unveiling in January of a framework by a bipartisan group of senators and support for reform from President Obama.

Bellows emphasized the importance of meaningful access to legal representation for persons in immigration proceedings. Statistics show, she said, that asylum seekers and others who have legal representation are significantly more likely to succeed in their immigration cases. Legal assistance, she noted, is critical for a variety of reasons, including immigrants’ lack of understanding of complex immigration laws and procedures because of cultural, linguistic or educational barriers.

Bellows recommended expansion to all immigration detainees of the Legal Orientation Program (LOP), under which the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review contracts with nonprofit organizations to educate detainees on the law and explain the removal process.    

The association also supports legal representation, including appointed counsel when necessary, for unaccompanied children and mentally ill and disabled persons.

Government-appointed counsel also should be provided for indigent non-citizens with potential relief from removal who are unable to secure pro bono counsel, she said.

Comprehensive immigration reform must address the detention of more than 400,000 foreign nationals annually in facilities throughout the country, Bellows said, explaining that noncitizens in removal proceedings should not be detained except in extraordinary circumstances where they are a flight risk or a risk to national security.

The association supports the enhancement of alternatives to detention and recommends that the detention system transition to a model of civil detention under humane conditions.

Bellows also urged Congress to address the ever-burgeoning caseload in the immigration courts. As of December 2012, there was a backlog of 322,818 cases and an average wait of nearly a year and half for a hearing. She suggested hiring enough additional immigration judges to bring the caseload total down to a number on par with other judges in the federal administrative adjudication system.

During the Feb. 13 hearing, Sen. Mazie  Hirono (D-Hawaii) called on her colleagues to maintain the tradition of bringing families together rather than focusing primarily on employment issues as they consider immigration reform.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano agreed, highlighting a recent DHS rule to reducing the amount of time U.S. citizens are separated from their families when applying for visas. She also emphasized the administration’s support for treating families of same-sex partnerships the same as other families under immigration law.

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