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Initiative to fund attorneys for migrants in Pima County fails to gather signatures

Pima County Justice For All measure won't go to local voters

A local initiative to give migrants in Pima County access to public defenders if they face immigration court proceedings failed to gather enough signatures to get on November's ballot.

The group, Pima County Justice For All, or Justicia Para Todos, announced on Facebook that they had managed to garner more than 40,000 signatures. But figure would fall short of the 58,238 signatures needed to put the initiative to area voters this fall.

The group did not submit their petitions to Pima County officials, and declined to respond to questions from the Tucson Sentinel.

While people in criminal courts are afforded representation, people undergoing immigration proceedings — such as deportation hearings and asylum claims — are not provided with an attorney. And, because of immigration law's inherent complexity, as well as the months and years often required to navigate the U.S. immigration system, many people who don't have legal representation fail to succeed in court.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association noted in 2016, while immigrants have a right to counsel in immigration court, that expense is carried by immigrants because deportation is "classified as a civil rather than a criminal sanction."

Immigration cases are akin to "death penalty cases in a traffic court setting," said Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president emeritus the National Association of Immigration Judges.

"Immigrants facing removal are not afforded the constitutional protections under the 6th Amendment that are provided to criminal defendants," AILA noted. 

A study in Tucson by University of Arizona researchers published in 2019 found immigrants without attorneys are successful only 14 percent of the time. But nearly 62 percent of those who appeared with counsel were able to remain in the United States.

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The 18-month long study was completed by the UA’s Binational Migration Institute and funded by the National Science Foundation. Researchers found immigration proceedings can cost a family in Pima County $24,000 or more, including lost wages and direct and indirect costs, and more than half of these arrests begin with local law enforcement.

As organizers of the county initiative noted, in 2020 close to 24,000 immigration cases were processed through immigration court in Tucson, and in about 98 percent of those cases, "people did not have a lawyer to represent and defend them."

The group sought to establish an Office of Immigration Representation as part of Pima County government, funded by sliding scale fees and public and private funding, and a host of attorneys to represent immigrants in federal immigration court. There are around 273,000 people in Arizona without authorization, largely hailing from Mexico, but it's unclear how many people in Pima County would need such legal representation.

"Gracias!" the group wrote, thanking those who signed the petition, and "raised their voices for justice for our neighbors and their children who stand alone in deportation court by signing the Justice for All petition." 

"Many thanks to everyone for their help," organizers wrote, adding "See you in November."

Launched last year, the group spent months working to get signatures, and secured endorsements from luminaries such as Linda Ronstadt, as well as current and former elected officials, including Mayor Regina Romero and U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva.

The effort was even able to secure $25,000 from Lin Manuel-Maranda, the producer and star of the Broadway hit "Hamilton" last year. However, that wasn't enough to carry the petition for the 2022 election. 

The group will likely forge ahead, and again seek to make the initiative a county ballot measure for 2024.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com