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SPLC launches pro bono project to ensure detained immigrants have access to counsel

The Southern Poverty Law Center today announced a new project that will enlist and train lawyers to provide free legal representation to immigrants who have been detained in the Southeast and are facing deportation proceedings.

When fully implemented, it will be the largest detention center-based deportation defense project in the country.

“Immigrants caught up in the deportation dragnet have a right to due process, and they deserve fair and humane treatment,” said Daniel Werner, SPLC senior supervising attorney. “Without an attorney, it is highly likely that their rights will be trampled, and highly unlikely they will obtain relief – even if they are entitled to it by law.”

The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) will begin at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, in collaboration with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the American Immigration Council, the Innovation Law Lab and the American Immigration Representation Project.

It will then be expanded to other detention centers throughout the Southeast. 

Through an innovative three-component approach, SIFI aims to ensure that the due process rights of every immigrant in a Southeastern detention facility are upheld. The first component will bring transparency to immigration courts by placing pro bono attorneys in them to observe and report on the practices of immigration judges. In the second component, pro bono attorneys take one-week shifts at the detention centers to handle intakes and initial case work. They then represent detained immigrants in the merits of their cases and through appeals in the third component.   

Many detained immigrants lack legal representation because they can’t afford it and because most detention centers are geographically isolated. Immigrants who do have counsel are 10 times as likely to succeed in their cases as those who represent themselves.

“Providing access to counsel for immigrants detained in remote and, for the most part, privately operated ICE facilities in the Southeast is both critically important and extremely challenging,” said Tamara Caldas, Pro Bono Partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, a law firm that has joined the SIFI effort.The Southern Poverty Law Center’s launch of SIFI and its commitment to this difficult mission will give pro bono attorneys an opportunity to serve this largely unrepresented and vulnerable population so that their claims and defenses can be fairly considered and adjudicated.”

The Trump administration is already ramping up a draconian immigration enforcement regime, one that is being driven not by facts but by the rhetoric of hate and fear. During his campaign, President Trump described Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists.”

On Monday, the SPLC, along with other civil rights and private lawyers, filed court papers seeking the immediate release of Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old DACA recipient who was brought to the United States from Argentina at age 7. She was a detained by ICE agents shortly after speaking at a press conference in Jackson, Mississippi, on March 1.

“Most of the men, women and children in detention are simply people trying to make ends meet, and many are fleeing persecution in their home countries,” Werner said. “They are part of our communities – neighbors, students, church members – and they are entitled to basic human rights.”

Attorneys can sign up for SIFI here.