CHICAGO — The Cook County Public Defender’s Office soon can represent non-citizens in court regardless of immigration status, a victory for advocates who have fought for more legal representation in deportation proceedings.
Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle joined other officials and immigrant rights organizers Tuesday to celebrate the signing of the Defenders For All Act, which Gov. JB Pritzker signed last month.
The Defenders for All coalition — a group of more than 40 organizations and community groups — pushed for the law and a new immigration unit within the Public Defender’s office dedicated to these cases.
Cook County is the third jurisdiction, after San Francisco and Alameda County, California, to offer representation to immigrants facing deportation. The law moves Cook County closer to creating a more “welcoming place for everyone to call home,” Preckwinkle said.
Public Defender Sharone Mitchell said the law allowed the office to respond to the needs and concerns of Chicago’s immigrant communities. It goes into effect in January.
“We know individuals who go to immigration court without a lawyer are far more likely to get a worse outcome. Not because of some fact in their case, but solely because they don’t have a lawyer…We want to change that,” Mitchell said.
Roughly 180,000 undocumented people live in Chicago.
Before the new law, immigrants in deportation hearings were not guaranteed the right to an appointed attorney. Around 70 percent of people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody do not have lawyers and are forced to defend themselves against experienced attorneys, said Hena Mansori, who will lead the public defender’s immigration unit.
This new law aims to “even the playing field” by taking on these cases and “hopefully improving the system for all,” Mansori said.
This legislation helps right historic wrongs in the state of Illinois, Lieutenant Gov. Juliana Stratton said.
“Navigating the justice system is already a lengthy complicated process. Now, add the stress of potentially facing deportation because there is no access to adequate resources to make your case. That creates an impossible situation for many immigrants in our country,” Stratton said.
Illinois Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz sponsored the bill because she said the justice system denies undocumented people due process, “a bedrock principle grounded in our commitment to fundamental fairness and equal justice under law.”
The new law builds on previous work by Cook County Commissioners, including the sanctuary ordinance that includes protections for all immigrants. Cook County allocated $350,000 last year to create an immigration unit in the Public Defender’s office.
Commissioner Alma Anaya said this effort has been years in the making. She and other county officials visited San Francisco two years ago to learn about its system for representing undocumented immigrants in court.
This new law will “change lives” and “change outcomes and it prevents the separation of families,” Anaya said.
“Everyone, regardless of their immigration status, should have fair representation and with this bill, it marks a step forward in that direction,” Anaya said.
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