Saturday, December 7, 2019

Immigrants' access to legal assistance further diminished by EOIR memo

The Justice Department recently issued a policy memo that would limit immigrants' ability to rely on friends of the court for legal assistance in immigration courts. As ImmigrationProf blog readers know, people appearing in immigration court do not have a right to government-appointed counsel. Friends of the court fill gaps for those who cannot afford private counsel or cannot find a pro bono lawyer by providing limited-scope legal services: providing free legal information, helping noncitizens identify what immigration benefits they may be eligible for, assisting with filling out and filing immigration forms, and helping people speak to the judge in open court. I've seen friends of the court simply sit with unrepresented children, lending assurance.

As Ilyce Shugall, the director of the Immigrant Legal Defense Program at the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Assn. of San Francisco, explains in an op-ed for the LA Times, such assistance is especially crucial for vulnerable individuals. Unaccompanied children, yes, and also trafficking and other crime victims and individuals who have serious mental health disabilities. She writes, "These individuals, who have often gone through severe trauma, are entirely unable to navigate the complex immigration system alone. By helping them, even in a limited capacity, the friends of the court also help the courts in processing cases."

EOIR says it is prohibiting friends of the court from speaking on behalf of unrepresented individuals in open court in order to protect immigrants from confusion about whether the friend is their attorney-advocate.


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