Lawyering Up

Most people arrested and imprisoned in the United States are assigned lawyers to help them navigate the legal process. Not so for immigrant detainees facing deportation. The proceedings are civil, but many people are detained while their cases wend through immigration court. Some detainees find lawyers through nonprofits such as Catholic Charities, but most go unrepresented.

A trio of Dallas immigration attorneys has launched a project that aims to educate North Texas detainees held hours away at the Rolling Plains Regional Jail and Detention Center in Haskell.

As part of the Know Your Rights Project, sponsored by the Texas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, volunteer attorneys are stocking the detention center with books on immigration law and giving monthly presentations to detainees via video conference from the Dallas immigration court. Attorney Elizabeth Cedillo-Pereira recently gave the first talk to a group of 17 male Haskell detainees and has since received 11 letters from immigrants held there.

"You know you're just scratching the surface when you're talking via video," she says of the 15-minute presentation and the question-and-answer session that followed. "So many people have questions." One man told her he was an American citizen, while a legal resident with a criminal conviction sought guidance on how to file an appeal by himself. While the talk was only delivered to men since the detainees are separated by gender, word traveled fast. A number of the letters Cedillo-Pereira received weren't from people who attended the presentation, and one was from a woman. The woman may qualify for legal residency because she was married to an American citizen who battered her, Cedillo-Pereira says. Though the Know Your Rights Project isn't meant to provide detainees with pro bono representation, she says she's looking into the woman's case.

Most of the people held in Haskell will ultimately be returned to their countries, but without legal knowledge or representation it's questionable whether those who are eligible for relief actually get it, Cedillo-Pereira says.

The program could even help those without relief. "At least this way they know when it's in their best interest to accept removal instead of waiting, which is good for them, good for the government, less expensive and allows them to get on with their lives," attorney Paul Zoltan says.

"I think this is the least we can do to allow detainees some sense of what rights they have available to them in removal proceedings," Zoltan says. "It scarcely begins to compensate for the fact that these detainees are being held on the dark side of the moon. The real reason why it's so important to have these presentations is that folks are effectively deprived of representation."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman