"This population, these communities have been so hard hit the last couple years. There’s been nothing for them. This is kind of the least you can do for them," says Kathy White, deputy director of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which produced the report released February 18.
The publication of CFI's research comes just days after the Colorado Legislature restarted its 2021 session. Some Democratic lawmakers, including Representative Kerry Tipper of Lakewood, plan to introduce a bill that would establish a statewide legal defense fund for indigent immigrants.
"The results are really pretty astounding," Tipper says of immigrant legal defense funds, in particular one funded by taxpayer money in New York state. "Overall, I think it elevates the quality of the outcome for everyone involved. To me, it’s a really smart investment."
Using numbers from fiscal year 2019, CFI's report determined that a statewide immigrant legal defense fund for both detained and non-detained indigent immigrants would carry a $15.2 million annual price tag, but also result in $18.6 million every year. These savings would come partially from preventing $3.9 million in lost wages that result when family members are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, which is operated by private prison company GEO Group.
During fiscal year 2019, 811 detained immigrants — about 65 percent — of the 1,255 who went through deportation proceedings in Aurora did so without legal representation. In immigration court, which is classified as civil, there's no right to counsel — despite the potential for prolonged detention. But immigrants who go through court with a lawyer are much more likely to see a favorable outcome than those who navigate cases without an attorney.
"When the stakes are this high, people should have access to an attorney to navigate a very complicated system," White says.
The report also suggests that a universal fund would save businesses around $12 million annually by preventing employee turnover from deportation. The other savings would come from state and municipalities not losing taxes from immigrants who are detained, as well as overall economic activity that would be generated by immigrants who remain free.
The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which provides free legal services to indigent immigrants detained in Aurora, strongly supports the idea of setting up such a fund. "Immigration law is staggeringly complex, and immigration proceedings are adversarial, meaning that the immigrant — even if they are a child, detained or an asylum seeker — is up against a government prosecutor advocating for their deportation," says Sarah Plastino, a senior staff attorney at RMIAN. "The current structure of the system presents grave due-process concerns. As a state, we cannot stand by and let this happen to our neighbors, in our own backyard."
In addition to RMIAN, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition is a key proponent of an immigrant legal defense fund.
Although money is tight this year, Tipper hopes to see lawmakers find some funds for the project. "It’s obviously a very, very hard time for families right now, so we’re all incredibly conscious of the budget. But also, with a bill like this, I think people are going to jump to the conclusion that it just helps people with documentation. If you have a green card, you can be put in removal proceedings," Tipper says. "Oftentimes, getting a lawyer will clear up the situation fairly quickly rather than having it drag through the system for a couple years."
If lawmakers push back against allocating state funds for an immigrant legal defense fund, Tipper would like the legislature to still set up a fund that can accept grant money and donations. "We know that we can rely on the philanthropic sector to get this program up and running," Tipper says, citing the Vera Institute of Justice as a potential grantor. The City of Denver received a grant of $100,000 from that organization when it started an immigrant legal defense fund in 2018.
"We’re looking forward to continuing to work with immigration advocates, legal services providers, state government leaders, and Governor Polis to make this a reality for Colorado. We hope that the State of Colorado can be a leader in the national movement for universal representation," says Vera's Katie Traverso.
Denver earmarked $500,000 for its immigrant legal defense fund in 2021. Last month, some members of the Aurora City Council tried to set up an immigrant legal defense fund, but the proposal was voted down.
Adds White: "Allowing this disruption to these families at a time when they’re actually really hurting and already working in industries that have been really hard hit by the pandemic, I think it’s even more important."
Here's the full Colorado Fiscal Institute report: