Identifying only as Wendy B., the teenage girl described escaping a childhood of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of caretakers in her homeland of El Salvador, only to enter a complicated legal system in the U.S. that she could not comprehend.
At first, she was like most in the U.S. immigration system: She could not afford legal representation, so she had none.
“I remember how scared I was when I first arrived in the United States. I remember not understanding anything,” the girl said. “I remember being given documents and papers in English. People asked me to sign things, but I had no idea what they were.
“I had experienced so many terrible things already and then I was being put into a situation that was so complicated that I felt hopeless.”
She described what happened next as luck. The Immigrant Defenders Law Center took on her asylum case, which is still pending. Now she is attending high school in Southern California, with dreams of becoming a neurologist. Her hope has been restored.
“There is no way I could have fought my case without a lawyer,” she said. “It’s impossible.”
As Wendy recounted her experience with the immigration system on the steps of downtown San Diego’s Civic Center Plaza Wednesday, she had some high-profile support behind her — actress and activist Alyssa Milano.
The two were joined by local immigrant advocates to draw national attention to the reality that few migrants undergoing immigration proceedings are represented by attorneys.
Unlike the criminal legal system, which provides defense no matter the ability to pay, the immigration legal system is based on civil law and does not afford that right.
That concept was recently challenged in court by a teenage boy from Honduras who was seeking asylum. In January, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that minor immigrants in the country without legal authorization are not entitled to legal representation if they cannot pay. “Mandating free court-appointed counsel could further strain an already overextended immigration system,” wrote Judge Consuelo Callahan.
Numerous nonprofit organizations and pro-bono efforts fill that gap — an amount that has expanded recently to respond to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy and separation of families — but nowhere near enough to provide representation for everyone.
Of the migrants detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, 70 to 80 percent have no legal representation, said Monika Langarica, senior staff attorney at the American Bar Association’s Immigration Justice Project.
At the news conference Wednesday, Milano announced the launch of a new fund that will expand such efforts. The SAFE Families Fund will bolster the Vera Institute of Justice’s program to provide legal services to immigrants facing deportation who can’t otherwise afford attorneys.
“To truly keep families together, safe and protected, we need to guarantee due process and a fair day in court for these families and families in our communities who are facing the life-or-death stakes that come with deportation,” Milano said. “Access to legal counsel is a bedrock American value, and is considered a fundamental right for American citizens, but is not currently guaranteed by law for everyone living in this country.”
Milano spent the previous morning observing cases in immigration court in San Diego, she said.
Milano, who first gained fame in the 1980s as a child on the TV sitcom “Who’s the Boss?”, has been an outspoken voice on several social causes, from abortion rights to gun control to sexual harassment. It was her tweet that sparked the #MeToo movement, encouraging women to come forward with their own experiences of being harassed.
She said has seen firsthand the violence and poverty forcing families to seek asylum in the U.S. She has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for 15 years.
“I have seen the tragic violence and appalling conditions that often make remaining in one’s home country impossible,” Milano said. “I have seen how a mother will do anything she can to keep her family safe, even if it means fleeing the only life she has ever known to face an administration that jeers at her arrival and seeks to detain and rapidly deport her without due process of law.”
She placed blame on the presidential administrations of both Republicans and Democrats.
The Trump administration has been in the process of reshaping its asylum policies, saying that it must fight against “rampant fraud and abuse.”
Andrew Nietor, a San Diego immigration attorney, said migrants with legal representation are 10 times more likely to win their case and be allowed to remain in the U.S.
He said many migrants have legal recourse to the stay in the U.S. without knowing it, as was the case with one of his clients who had three U.S. citizen children and a U.S. citizen wife. Others suffer from mental health issues that further complicate understanding, he said.
Since 2003, the Department of Justice has funded a legal orientation program in detention centers that provides basic guidance on how the system works. About 53,000 people participated in its orientation sessions last year — more than 3,500 of them at the Otay Mesa facility.
The goal was to improve efficiency in the immigration courts, which is currently dealing with a backlog of some 746,000 cases nationwide.
“Experience has shown that the LOP has had positive effects on the immigration court process,” the DOJ website says about the program, which costs $8 million annual and is run by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice. “Detained individuals make wiser, more informed decisions and are more likely to obtain representation; non-profit organizations reach a wider audience of people with minimal resources; and, cases are more likely to be completed faster, resulting in fewer court hearings and less time spent in detention.”
The Trump administration threatened in April to suspend the program while the agency investigated its effectiveness. An official for the Executive Office for Immigration Review said that the duty of informing people of their rights, how the system works and how to contact a free lawyer belongs to immigration judges.
But the decision received pushback from Congress, and the program has been allowed to continue for now.
The first phase of the DOJ’s study of the program, released last week, found that the legal orientations resulted in longer court proceedings and longer detention for participants. Those in the program were also more likely to be allowed to remain in the U.S.