The Human Impact of Universal Representation

The SAFE (Safety and Fairness for Everyone) Network is a group of local jurisdictions, convened by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), dedicated to the goal of providing publicly funded legal representation for immigrants in their communities facing deportation. Local leaders in these jurisdictions are committed to keeping immigrant families together and communities safe by protecting due process for immigrants who cannot otherwise afford an attorney. The SAFE Network advances a universal representation model—publicly funded deportation defense for all. The model's merits-blind case selection approach views all cases as equally deserving of representation, rooted in the widespread support for due process as a fundamental value of justice. What this translates to in real life is powerful.

This report presents a selection of clients’ stories that demonstrate the ripple effect of representation and importance of universal representation to clients, their families, and communities. The stories draw on interviews Vera researchers conducted with clients around the country. Many of these clients had been released from custody and were still awaiting final decisions on their cases at the time they were interviewed. Others had already won the right to remain legally in the United States. As their stories show, the involvement of lawyers brought fairness to complex immigration proceedings, helped restore trust in local institutions, and allowed clients to return to their communities—and remain together with their families—while they awaited the judge’s decision.

These stories were originally published in A Year of Being SAFE, a report which describes the early successes of Vera's SAFE Network after the program's first year.

Valentina's Story

Lawyers help offset the destabilizing effects of detention for households and families: Valentina’s story

Valentina’s experience demonstrates how quickly household stability can deteriorate when a family member is detained. Valentina has deep ties to the United States, having lived here for 23 years. She and her husband raised a U.S. citizen daughter and two lawful permanent resident (LPR) sons here. Like her now-adult sons, who have lived here since they could barely walk, Valentina never naturalized, though she was long ago eligible and had recently started the process of becoming a citizen.

Valentina began the interview quite distressed, telling Vera researchers she was depressed and receiving mental health treatment following the recent events of her life. A few months earlier, her husband had died after battling cancer “all over his body.”

Soon after, her two adult sons were arrested by immigration authorities at her home. Since then, “the rent has not been forgiving,” as her sons had been supporting her following her husband’s death. Valentina spent much of the interview in tears, describing how she has lived in the same community, her home, for decades. She was now without money, alone, and often thought about how much her sons were suffering in detention during these “ugly times” in the United States.

Before her sons met their lawyer, she told us they were desperate, often saying they would just give up and return to Mexico—a country where they had not lived since they were small children. With the lawyer, Valentina’s sons had hope, and so did she, that the family would not lose everything.

Juan and Paula's Story

The positive effects of representation have a ripple effect that extends far beyond the immigration court case: Juan and Paula’s story

Often, the hope and positive outcomes that came with representation had stabilizing effects on clients’ financial situations, physical and mental health, and the physical and mental health of their family members. Juan and Paula’s story illustrates this point.

Juan’s detention took his family by surprise, leading to what his wife Paula described as “a complete 180” overnight. Juan and Paula described a tight-knit, stable family that didn’t have financial worries and was “always together” doing activities. Paula explained they were “dumbfounded” when one night, soon after speaking to his wife on his phone, Juan was pursued and apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers while driving home from work. He had recently decided he wanted to expand his job possibilities and applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) after consulting with a private attorney who told him an arrest from his youth would not be an issue. Instead, it triggered a warrant for his apprehension by ICE.

Mariana's Story

Lawyers help clients navigate complex immigration laws they are unable to understand alone: Mariana’s story

Mariana recounted emotionally that immigration court was “horrible, so, so stressful …When I was first detained with ICE there were so many thoughts in my mind … I was so, so stressed out … because I put my whole life right there, in their hands, my children’s lives, my family’s.” She described feeling physically ill when she went to court and tried to defend herself alone. She submitted her young children’s pictures to the judge, hoping to demonstrate the burden her detention was causing the family. Instead of helping her case, this just reinforced how little Mariana understood about the process, as “[the government attorney] was laughing at me.” She recounted, “when you’re there and you don’t have a lawyer, it’s like, you feel somehow like, like, unprotected … because you don’t even understand what they’re telling you. You just hear them say all these court words and saying all these codes and stuff.”

Mariana’s feelings about the process changed when she received a lawyer. She reflected: “With the lawyer it’s just so much different because they understand all these things.”

Yusuf and Manuel's Stories

Lawyers help restore dignity and humanity to immigrants and their families: Yusuf and Manuel’s stories

Many clients felt vulnerable even before their detention, felt disrespected by immigration system actors and, without attorneys, were confused about the immigration court process. Repeatedly, clients pointed to ways in which their SAFE attorneys helped restore dignity to them and the process and put them at ease even when they did not fully understand complex immigration court proceedings.

For example, Yusuf observed that an immigration court interpreter was not enough to help him understand “the law, the Constitution, or the codes” well enough to defend himself effectively. After obtaining representation, he noted that a lawyer “can step in and just save your life.” When Vera interviewers asked more about this, Yusuf explained that he came to the United States on a student visa that had recently expired. While he saw himself as someone working hard in the United States, the detention center staff told him he was a national security threat and kept him—he felt arbitrarily because of his appearance and Middle Eastern descent—in solitary confinement. This deeply affected Yusuf emotionally, who felt he had to “just take everything they doled out” and viewed the harsh treatment as “so un-American.” With a SAFE lawyer’s intervention, Yusuf was soon released from detention, has obtained legal work authorization, and has returned to his community in the United States. He credits the attorney with helping him get out of detention and juxtaposed the dehumanizing experience of detention with the respect his attorney showed him.

Adom's Story

Immigration lawyers are often the front line of defense for immigrants who have involvement with multiple justice systems: Adom’s story

Adom’s experience reinforces the many issues that converge in immigration defense cases and the crucial role lawyers play in helping clients navigate multiple legal systems and issues. Adom’s story began with a routine traffic stop. He said he was told he was being pulled over for a tail light being out, though he is certain the tail light wasn’t out and suspects he was being racially profiled. The police officer then issued Adom a ticket for driving with a suspended license. Because Adom had never received notice he had a suspended license, he went to traffic court to challenge the ticket.

When Adom got to court, his case was put off for several hours. He had an unpleasant exchange with the police officer who had pulled him over and, as he was waiting for his case to conclude, Adom, a black man from West Africa, began wondering, “is it anything that I did wrong, or, I mean, if there’s any room for our race [in the United States].”

In the meantime, the police officer had coordinated with local ICE agents to have them apprehend Adom in the traffic court building. Adom was immediately taken to detention, leaving him unable to communicate with the babysitter caring for his young son. The babysitter had to unexpectedly stay with his son for the next several days until Adom’s wife could leave her job as a live-in nanny. During this time, his son developed an infection on his head that required Adom’s wife to miss more work. The family fell behind on the rent.

Luis's Story

Universal representation that is merits-blind and does not exclude people based on prior contact with the criminal justice system ensures all immigrants have access to due process: Luis’s story

Luis’s story demonstrates the value of merits-blind universal representation that views all clients as equally deserving of assistance. Luis explained he had spent months looking for an attorney from inside detention, but nobody would take his case because he had a DUI charge; indeed, many immigration lawyers who offer free representation are overwhelmed with the level of need and often develop criteria that lead them to “cherry pick” the strongest cases. Most fee-based attorneys Luis reached out to from detention told him they could not even offer a consultation without a hefty fee. Desperate to get out of detention so he could continue to support his nine-year-old U.S. citizen daughter, Luis tried to navigate the process alone, seeking a bond hearing. He attended that hearing without the assistance of a lawyer and was granted a $20,000 bond he could not afford to pay. When Luis’s case was accepted for representation, he was surprised to learn that his lawyer did not expect to be paid, attempted to lower the bond amount, and even helped raise money for his bond through a local community organization, eventually helping him secure release. Luis recounted that the lawyer’s dedication to his case motivated him to continue appearing in court and enabled him to return to work to support his family while fighting his case. Without a program like SAFE that offers due process to all immigrants, Luis would have continued to languish in detention unnecessarily, away from the family that needs him.