Commentary

Philly city leaders need to support this crucial deportation defense program. Here’s why | Opinion

March 5, 2021 6:30 am

Harold, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, lived in South Philadelphia for over two decades before ICE detained him and attempted to deport him.

Unsure of his rights and legal options, he was terrified. It wasn’t until he met his lawyer, funded by a promising Philadelphia program, that he learned he had a strong case to stay in the US. His new lawyer helped him gain release from detention, and Harold is now home with his family and back at work.

Stories such as Harold’s are far from uncommon. Most don’t know that people facing deportation do not have the right to a public defender, and that the vast majority of immigrants in detention (70 percent) must face a complex legal system alone.

Some immigrants languish in detention for years. Detention is inhumane under normal circumstances, but in the midst of the pandemic it can become a death sentence.

Immigrants have been attacked, criminalized, and seen their families torn apart by federal policies. While these policies didn’t begin with the Trump administration, they took on particular brutality and hostility over the last few years.

As we fight to ensure the Biden administration shifts federal policy to ameliorate some of the harms inflicted on our communities and Philadelphians like Harold, it is more important than ever for leaders at the local and state level to reaffirm their commitment to protecting immigrants.

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As a city that proudly recognizes how critical immigrants are to the vibrancy of our city and our economic recovery, Philadelphia has an opportunity to continue to lead by example – including ensuring ongoing support for critical deportation defense programs in the 2021-22 city budget.

In the face of the heightened fear and uncertainty, Philadelphia stood strong and provided basic protections for immigrants by recognizing their right to not be disappeared from their communities without a warrant and taking steps to ensure immigrants are fully included in all aspects of city life.

A critical piece of this work was the 2019 launch of the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project, a promising initiative that provides public defenders for immigrants, including Harold, facing deportation at no cost.

The PAIFUP project has quickly become an essential pillar of Philadelphia’s policies: this year, the program will represent approximately 60 immigrants.

One third of the clients represented in the program’s first year have been released from detention, 82 percent are their households’ primary breadwinners and over one third are parents. In the midst of the pandemic and continued heightened enforcement, PAIFUP lawyers are at the forefront of the fight for freedom, safety, and dignity for Philadelphians in detention.

Last year, under Mayor Jim Kenney’s leadership and driven by the work of champions including Councilmembers Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier, the Philadelphia City Council allocated $200,000 to PAIFUP.

This triggered a matching grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund to continue the critical work that has served as a lifeline for community members.

Since then, we’ve seen momentum for universal representation building across the country, from Harris County, TX to Denver, Colo., and Long Beach, Calif., where leaders have included funding for similar programs in their budgets amid COVID-19.

But now is not the time to let our guards down: detention continues in spite of high rates of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania’s immigration jails, and families continue to live in fear as deportations have continued under the new administration.

When he puts forward his budget next month, Kenney has an opportunity to double-down on Philadelphia’s commitment to immigrant communities and ensure PAIFUP’s future by allocating $300,000 for the program for the next fiscal year.

As we look towards systemic change in our immigration system in the years to come, our leaders in Philadelphia can continue to pave the way by recommitting to universal representation. This bold and inclusive vision of justice will promote fairness for all, while keeping Philadelphia’s communities safe and families together.

Sundrop Carter is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. Carter writes from Philadelphia.

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