Immigrants are excluded from the right to legal representation. It’s time to change that.

Last year, there were nearly 4 million people in immigration court facing deportation, 70% of whom lacked legal representation.

Ibrahima Keita waited outside the immigration court for hours, but his attorney never came to accompany him to his asylum hearing. Inside, an immigration judge marked Keita a no-show and ordered his deportation. He didn’t know he could attend the hearing by himself and ask for a “continuance.” He didn’t know it was a day that would forever change his life, after many years of building a life in the United States.

Keita’s is just one of many families separated due to the lack of legal representation. Last year, there were nearly 4 million people in immigration court facing deportation, 70% of whom lacked legal representation. Of the approximately 250,000 people who were ordered deported last year, 74% lacked legal representation.

Anyone navigating a complex legal process that has life-altering consequences, like immigration court, should have a trained legal adviser at their side. It’s this principle that led the Supreme Court to rule unanimously 61 years ago in Gideon v. Wainwright that people facing criminal charges have the right to legal representation. But those principles don’t apply to civil immigration court matters – at least not yet.

Universal representation for immigrants is possible – regardless of immigration status and ability to pay for an attorney. And states and cities across the country think so, too: More than 55 jurisdictions have already established publicly funded deportation defense programs.

And last year, Congress introduced the Fairness to Freedom Act, which would secure the legal right to an attorney for immigrants facing deportation and family separation.

The immigration system and unreliable legal representation failed Keita when they ordered his deportation in 1997. He fought to remain in the United States by re-filing for asylum and later regularly attending his required Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins until 2016, when his check-ins were deemed no longer necessary because of changes to the government’s removal priorities.

By this point, he had spent nearly 30 years in the United States, working as a delivery driver, paying taxes and starting a family. He and his wife, Neissa Kone, were raising two young sons. But then the life he had built all came crashing down: The Trump administration changed the U.S. government’s deportation priorities and carried out Keita’s removal in 2018.

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Annie Chen and Nicole Melaku