Protect Legal Aid Programs for Immigrants Amid COVID-19

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By Cathryn Miller Wilson and POWER/Live Free

Justice: The pursuit of it is much more than a moral imperative. Lady justice is always shown with scales, not because morality requires balance, but because society requires balance. For a society to not just function, but truly serve all of those that inhabit it, it must be just.

The ongoing pandemic and the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubery have again made raw the deep-seated wound of our unjust society. For too long, many of us have looked away from the truth that the foundation of our institutions and policies is rooted in oppression.

Pursuing the justice that will right the balance and recreate a truly just society will require changes to every piece of the puzzle that makes up our institutions and policies. We want to shed light on one of those pieces: publicly funded counsel for detained immigrants.

Why this small piece and why now? Because the pandemic hit black, indigenous and other communities of color, both in and out detention, the hardest. Because detention and mass incarceration are two sides of the same coin of oppression. Because the plight of our detained neighbors is a very real and very urgent concern for those who care about racial justice.

The vast majority of the immigrants detained in York, in Pike County, in Cambria, in Berks, and in any of the immigrant detention facilities in our state are people of color. They are predominantly black people and people of color, hailing from Sierra Leone, from Ghana, from Eritrea, from Guatemala and from Honduras, from Haiti and the Cote D’Ivoire.

They are our family, friends, and neighbors who are fundamental to the fabric of our great city. Yet even during a pandemic, the federal government continues to target these communities, lock them in cages and threaten to separate families through detention and deportation.

What most don’t know is that detained immigrants do not have a right to counsel if they cannot afford one. While they are imprisoned, caged, denuded of freedom for months and sometimes years, our courts have said that because immigration is a civil proceeding and not a criminal one, publicly funded counsel is not justified.

Distinguishing between Americans and immigrants when it comes to due process is both a violation of the Constitution as well as a continuation of the systemic racism that has brought us to this moment.

Fortunately, there is a program that has fought to preserve the liberty and justice for immigrant Pennsylvanians. Launched last year, the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project is Pennsylvania’s first publicly funded defense counsel project for detained immigrants. Requiring just $200,000 to continue its work in the coming year, it is a small, but powerful, piece of the puzzle as Philadelphia moves to create a more just society for its residents. But the mayor’s latest budget proposal defunds it.

Funding for PAIFUP should be part of a new era in Philadelphia — one that funds justice rather than the continuation of an unfair system. Access to counsel for immigrants is a critical part of addressing historic injustice and standing with the most vulnerable communities in the pivotal time. Lawyers are the ones that hear the stories firsthand that shine a light on the twisted threads that combine to reinforce white supremacy.

Every policy in the name of enforcing our laws — immigrant detention, mass incarceration, keeping some out while letting others in, granting driver’s licenses, providing work authorization, allowing the right to vote and taking it away — is permeated with the racist foundation that our country is built upon.

We urge Philadelphians to ask their council members to envision an end to one extreme injustice by continuing PAIFUP, Philadelphia’s program to provide counsel for immigrant detainees.

Recognize this as one important piece of the broader puzzle of reforms that must be made now, as we travel on the road to justice.

Cathryn Miller-Wilson is the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania and POWER/Live Free is an interfaith social justice congregation.


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