Denver launches legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation


A House panel on Tuesday approved along party lines a bill that would put $100,000 toward a legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation proceedings who couldn’t otherwise afford an attorney.

The sponsors of House Bill 21-1194, along with a host of advocate organizations and immigrants who had been through deportation proceedings, pitched the bill to the House Judiciary Committee as a measure that attempted to inject fairness into the immigration court system. That system, they said, lacked some features considered to be hallmarks of the American legal system – including the right to counsel enshrined in the Sixth Amendment.

“This bill is really fundamentally about the due process and fairness that we should provide every individual,” said Denise Maes, the public policy director of the ACLU of Colorado.

Sarah Plastino, a senior staff attorney at Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, added immigrants are 10 times more likely to prevail in deportation proceedings if they have access to legal counsel.

“In fact, whether you have an attorney or not is the single most determinative factor in your prospects of succeeding on your case,” she said.

But Plastino told the panel the bill wasn’t solely about keeping immigrants in the country. Even in cases where it was clear the person subject to deportation should be deported, Plastino said, having an attorney expedited the process.

“It is a cost-saving measure in terms of decreasing the days of a proceeding and for people who are in detention, for decreasing the number of days in detention,” she said.

While several of the panel’s GOP members praised the intent of the bill, all four Republicans ultimately voted against it. Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, raised questions on why the state should be funding the endeavor, and Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, followed through on that line of thinking in closing remarks.

“While I certainly appreciate the intent behind the bill, I've spoken with both bill sponsors and I simply don't believe that this is an appropriate use of state taxpayer money,” she said.

Still, the bill cleared the committee 7-4 en route to the House Appropriations Committee. The vote marked a personal win for Rep. Naquetta Ricks, D-Aurora, who is sponsoring the bill in the House along with Rep. Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood.

Ricks in testimony shared her own harrowing story of immigrating to the United States as a child after a bloody military coup in her native Liberia. The Aurora Democrat told the panel her mother was held at gunpoint and her mother’s fiancé was among the 13 government ministers from the prior regime who were tied to light poles on the public beach and shot.

Ricks said after that ordeal, she immigrated to the United States with her mother and sister. But, without access to legal representation, the trio lost their immigration cases and had only newspaper clippings of the coup to prove their case.

“Had this fund or a fund similar to this been set up at that time, I know it could have helped my family,” she said.

After that initial setback, Ricks said she and her family spent years going through the immigration process to gain permanent residence before changes to immigration law made during the Reagan administration granted them citizenship.

"A lot of people come here not because they want to be here. They come here because of war. They come here because of family. They come here because of hardships that they have experienced in their native lands and they just don't check their humanity at the border when they come," she said. "I think that this fund would go a long ways to helping these families."

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