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Cook County Public Defender’s Office Now Representing Non-Citizens In Immigration Court

Before a change in law, immigrants in deportation hearings were not guaranteed the right to an appointed attorney. "Without a lawyer, folks face a heightened risk of not getting bond and can remain separated from their families for many months," Public Defender Sharone Mitchell said.

Chicagoans protest Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2016.
Ariel Cheung/DNAinfo Chicago
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CHICAGO — People living in Cook County who can’t afford their own attorney in immigration court can now be represented by attorneys working in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

The Cook County Public Defender’s Office began representing non-citizens regardless of immigration status in court two months ago, and has already seen successes among the dozen cases the office has dealt with.

Gov. JB Pritzker signed Defenders For All Act last summer after advocates fought for years for more legal representation in deportation proceedings. 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.

Before the new law, immigrants in deportation hearings were not guaranteed the right to an appointed attorney.

Public Defender Sharone Mitchell, who leads the office, called the immigration unit a “historic initiative” during a press conference Monday.

“We’ve seen the studies that suggest what effect not having counsel has on a person’s outcome,” Mitchell said. “Without a lawyer, folks face a heightened risk of not getting bond and can remain separated from their families for many months. They also are at high risk of being deported, sometimes to a country that they barely know or might be in danger.”

Four bond cases the Public Defender’s immigration unit handled resulted in people reuniting with their families, said Guadalupe Perez, an attorney in the Public Defender’s office immigration unit.

In order to be represented by the office, individuals have to demonstrate a lack of financial resources, have a case in Chicago immigration court, have ties to Cook County and or be a current or former client of the Public Defender’s office, Perez said.

“This unit is changing lives, in matters to make sure that individuals that go into immigration court have someone in their corner, someone that is advocating for them, someone that is walking them through the process,” Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya said.

During the press conference, organizers also announced a recent partnership between immigration non-profits and the Cook County Public Defender’s Office called the Midwest Immigrant Defenders Alliance, aimed at broadening the scope of people detained by ICE who can access free legal counsel as they face removal proceedings before Chicago immigration court.

During a one-year pilot program, the Midwest Immigrant Defenders Alliance can reach people detained by ICE in Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky who are unrepresented in court and allow them to consult with one of the collaborating groups and receive free legal representation. The cases will be tracked throughout the year to evaluate the program’s impact.

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