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Maryland Lawmakers Consider Guaranteeing Lawyers For Immigrants Facing Deportation

Gregory Bull
AP Photo

Cristobal Gomez was in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, detention center in Frederick County for a month and 18 days before a lawyer took on his case. 


“Without a lawyer, they don’t tell you anything,” he said through an interpreter.


Immigration agents kept trying to get him to sign a form agreeing to be deported, Gomez said. “I told them I didn’t want to, that I couldn’t leave my family. But they would only talk to me about deportation.”

Gomez is originally from Honduras but has been in the United States for 17 years. 


He said his church community in Baltimore and his wife struggled to find him a lawyer before someone from the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, or CAIR, came to the detention center. The organization is giving Gomez free legal services.


At the detention center, “most of the people I interacted with didn’t have lawyers, and most of them were deported,” Gomez said. 


The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a lawyer for defendants in criminal cases, but there’s no such guarantee in immigration cases. A bill currently before state lawmakers would change that, making Maryland the first state in the country to give immigrants facing deportation the right to an attorney.


“It's a pretty fundamental right to be deprived of liberty, and many of these folks may have good reasons for at least being able to argue before the court that they should be allowed to stay in the United States,” said state Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor.


Hettleman’s bill would guarantee lawyers for all Maryland residents facing deportation, whether they are detained in- or out-of-state, and all immigrants in Maryland detention centers. The Maryland Office of the Public Defender, which is supporting the bill, would be responsible for overseeing the program.


The bill has its first public hearing Wednesday before the Senate’s Judicial Proceedings committee.


According to the Vera Institute of Justice, having a lawyer makes an immigrant more than 10 times more likely to win their case. 


However, only about 30% of Maryland residents facing deportation have legal representation, said CAIR Managing Attorney Eric Lopez.


“They have to coordinate their own testimony, their applications for relief, submit them to the court, somehow secure witnesses to appear at their trials, and then navigate the complex labyrinth that is immigration law,” Lopez said. 

The immigrants must know how to do all of that in English from the confines of a jail cell, without any access to the outside world.

“All of these things in the aggregate lead to very devastating outcomes for individuals who would otherwise even be eligible for immigration relief,” Lopez said.

On the other hand, about three quarters of Maryland immigrants who have lawyers win their cases, Lopez said.

Baltimore City and Prince George’s County have programs that help immigrants connect with attorneys, as do several states. However, none of those programs guarantee lawyers the way Hettleman’s bill would.

“We simply have not had the resources available to afford every single Baltimore City resident, every single Prince George's County resident an attorney,” Lopez said. “We have had to historically utilize a random selection process.”

Hettleman said she is still tweaking some of the bill’s fine print, including who will qualify for a state-sponsored lawyer.

Still, according to the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services, guaranteeing lawyers will be expensive. One estimate puts the cost at roughly $6 million a year.

But Lopez said deporting so many immigrants has its own financial cost.


“In my experience, our clients have been primary income providers for their families. I've seen firsthand what ICE detention does to destabilize, not just emotionally, a family, but financially and destabilize communities in this way, financially, as well,” he said. “It is sound fiscal policy to return individuals who are contributing to the state’s economy, the state’s taxes.”


Gomez is the primary income earner for his family. His wife, a U.S. citizen, can’t work due to her health. He said his wife and daughters struggled with the idea of being forced to leave the country.

“My daughters were aware that it was a possibility, and they started struggling a lot,” he said. “They struggled in school and they were constantly crying.”


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