WASHINGTON — In her first legislative initiative as a senator, California freshman Kamala Harris on Thursday introduced a bill that, if passed, would provide access to lawyers for anyone held or detained while trying to enter the United States.
The bill is intended to address the confusion created when President Trump denied by executive order the entry of residents of Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. The order is the subject of a pending case before a federal appeals court in San Francisco. Volunteer lawyers have been attempting to aid people subject to the ban and have met with difficulties gaining access to them as they arrived and were detained at U.S. airports.
“Detention without access to representation goes against the basic values of our judicial system,” Harris, the former attorney general of California, said in a statement.
“Refugees, immigrants, students, and tourists all deserve to be able to access their lawyer in legal proceedings that could change the course of their lives, whether they enter the country at an airport or come across the border,” she added. “Interactions with immigration enforcement officials are often confusing and disorienting and no one should be exploited because of their lack of knowledge of our legal system.”
The measure has five co-sponsors in the Senate and a House companion measure introduced by Rep. Pramila Jaypal, D-Wash., with 10 co-sponsors.
But Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said it has “zero” likelihood of becoming law and questioned its basic premise.
“The constitutional guarantee to a right to representation at public expense applies only to those charged in criminal cases,” he said. “Immigration is a civil matter and people who are challenging denials of admission to the United States have no guarantee of publicly funded representation. Everyone, including Americans who are involved in civil cases of all sorts, must provide their own legal representation, or seek pro bono counsel.”
Mehlman said there was no reason to make an exception for non-citizens violating immigration laws.
Mehlman continued: “Sen. Harris’s legislation would represent an enormous additional cost to American taxpayers on top of the estimated $100 billion they already pay to provide basic services to illegal aliens and their U.S.-born dependents. The bill is also an attempt to further burden the federal judicial system, which is already backlogged with hundreds of thousands of immigration cases.”
Harris press secretary Tyrone Gayle noted the text of the bill says the lawyers would gain access to arrivals “at no expense to the government.”
The bill introduced Thursday follows Harris’ letter Sunday to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly demanding he instruct immigration agents to grant those detained under the Jan. 27 executive order “timely and unfettered access” to counsel.
The bill calls for legal services to be provided remotely — by phone or video — if a lawyer cannot be physically present. It also would make invalid documents in which the detainees abandon legal resident status or applications for admission if they are signed after being denied access to a lawyer.
The Access to Counsel Act has been endorsed by dozens of organizations that work with immigrants, including Amnesty International, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, applauded the measure.
“As the Trump administration is attempting to close it borders to refugees and asylum seekers, prompt access to lawyers for people who come fleeing persecution is a critical safeguard to ensure they receive the protections guaranteed under U.S. and international law,” McCarthy said in a statement. “Over the course of just one weekend, our country witnessed the critical role legal counsel plays in upholding the rule of law and protecting the basic rights of people who are integral members of America’s families, communities and institutions.”
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