Story at a glance

  • While most Americans have the right to counsel in legal proceedings, immigrants held in ICE detention are not guaranteed the right to an attorney.
  • A new poll shows that many Americans support government-funded attorneys for immigrants facing deportation.
  • While there are differing levels of support based on political affiliation, a majority are still in support of government-funded attorneys for everyone who can’t afford one.

"You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”

Whether you’ve heard your Miranda rights read while under arrest or on a television show, you’re likely familiar with the right to representation in legal proceedings. 

For people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), however, that right doesn't apply. In fact, immigrants facing deportation are often forced to represent themselves, despite language and comprehension barriers. Children as young as 3 years old have been ordered to appear in court alone, according to reports in 2018 and as recent as 2020. But a new survey reveals that a movement to provide legal representation to all is gaining ground.       

Two out of 3 people in the United States support government-funded attorneys for immigrants facing deportation, according to a recent survey by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research institute with its origins in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

“We are in an era where things seem really divisive, where polarization and partisanship seems to dominate a lot of political discourse and I think these results serve as a reminder that there are areas where people are not as divided as people may assume,” said Lucila Figueroa, a senior research associate at the institute's Center on Immigration and Justice.


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The measure is more popular among Democrats, 80 percent of whom support the idea, but just more than half of Republicans also expressed support, along with two-thirds of those who did not identify with either party. In fact, 45 percent of Donald Trump supporters also said they support government-funded attorneys for immigrants facing deportation, despite the president’s heated rhetoric and strict policies dealing with undocumented immigrants. 

Across the country, there are 42 publicly funded local and state deportation defense programs, half of which are formal partners of the institute's SAFE Initiative, but support is high nationwide. In the cities surveyed, support was highest in Prince George's County, Md., where 83 percent of likely voters support government-funded attorneys for immigrants facing deportation. But even in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, where support was lowest, 57 percent of likely voters said they would support immigrants facing deportation.

“What we’ve seen thus far is that there are still, even with the moratorium on deportations, we’ve seen hundreds of deportations and thousands still remain locked up in detention and so we are hopeful that the new administration's agenda will more clearly state a focus on federal funding for legal defense” said Annie Chen, director of the SAFE Initiative at the Vera Institute. 


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Decades after their work on the Manhattan Bail Project led to the Bail Reform Act of 1966, which gave noncapital defendants a statutory right to be released pending trial, the nonprofit continues to champion legal rights in New York and across the United States, even throughout the coronavirus pandemic

“Even in the midst of a global pandemic people are still supporting the government paying for programs like this that provide attorneys for those in immigration courts,” said Figueroa.

Overall, Americans overwhelmingly support government-funded attorneys for everyone who cannot afford one, including immigrants facing deportation, but the survey found that the support varies depending on how the issue was framed. 

“What I think is happening there is that the second version is sort of setting people to think about this universal right in the United States and asking should immigrants be included,” said Figueroa. But even when the question was framed “more bluntly,” she said support remained in the majority. 

“There is more common ground than is immediately apparent,” she added. “Particularly on issues that relate to shared values that people hold...a commitment to due process norms and ideals and the belief that people in the United States have the right to an attorney."


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Published on Feb 18, 2021