Imagine you’re far away from family and friends and have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At your court hearing, through an interpreter, the judge asks you questions; some you can understand, others are confusing. The judge talks to you about legal standards, meeting filing deadlines and submitting evidence. Any documents you submit to the court must be in English, a language you don’t understand. You are told you must argue your case against a government attorney whose objective is to deport you from the United States. Because you can’t afford an attorney to represent you, the judge says you must perform these complicated legal tasks alone.

As alarming as this scenario may sound, this situation is a reality for many immigrants in deportation, or removal, proceedings. Immigration court is the only type of legal proceeding in the U.S. where a person is forced to defend their freedom and safety without the guaranteed assistance of counsel.

In Bexar County, nearly 66% of individuals were forced to defend their immigration case without an attorney. Considering the nearly impossible undertaking of forcing a person without legal expertise to defend themselves, it is no surprise that most people in deportation proceedings in Bexar County lose their immigration cases. At the San Antonio Immigration Court, judges denied asylum claims nearly 74% of the time from 2016-2021. At the Pearsall Immigration Court, located just outside Bexar County, judges denied asylum claims in almost 76% of cases. 

This data highlights the significant need for legal representation for Bexar County community members. For immigrants fighting against deportation, having an attorney could mean the difference between being able to stay in Bexar County or being torn from their family, community and the life they have built in the U.S. Dedicated legal representation enhances due process and fairness for people facing an immigration legal system that is unfairly punitive and unjust.

Attorneys help clients collect critical evidence from family members or friends, translate important documents, prepare witnesses for court testimony, and craft legal arguments to explain to the judge why a client qualifies for relief. For immigrants fighting deportation, having an attorney means they’ll be 10 times more likely to achieve a favorable case outcome. 

Although an attorney can protect a person from potential harm and permanent separation from loved ones, for many, paying for an attorney is nearly impossible. Local nonprofits such as American Gateways and RAICES provide free or low-cost representation to people in deportation proceedings in and around Bexar County. However, the demand for legal representation outweighs the capacity of these organizations.

For example, American Gateways and RAICES represent noncitizen clients at the South Texas Detention Center (STDC) run by ICE in Pearsall. The facility detains the second largest number of immigrants in the nation, averaging 1,162 people detained per day. These nonprofits do not have the resources to represent even a quarter of these people. Additionally, COVID-19 has made it even more urgent to provide legal representation for people in ICE detention. At STDC, there have been 1,518 people confirmed to have contracted the deadly COVID-19 virus. This means many in ICE custody will be forced to defend their case in harmful detention conditions and without legal representation to help them prepare for court. 

Our clients have described immigration detention centers as one of the most stressful and dehumanizing experiences in their life. The fear of being torn apart from their family was overwhelming. They’ve expressed feeling alone in a remote detention center and lost in court without an attorney to help navigate the legal system. Many of our clients describe being unable to receive even basic information about their case from ICE officials and being unable to fully explain their story to the judge. However, having an attorney helped them feel their voice mattered and gave them the courage to provide critical testimony and evidence in court needed to win their case to remain in the U.S. 

Approximately 165,000 people in the San Antonio area are noncitizens and, therefore, at risk of deportation. These individuals have raised children, established businesses, and helped create a diverse and rich culture in San Antonio. If they are deported, the consequences can be devastating. They may be deported to a country where their safety or life is at risk. Many people in removal proceedings in Bexar County have strong ties to the community. They would be permanently separated from their families, and their absence would be a loss for our entire community. 

An immigrant legal defense fund created in Harris County will begin providing invaluable legal services to people in the Houston area. Under the Harris County fund, six-area non-profits will create an immigrant detention hotline, provide legal representation to people in detention centers, and also provide post-release services to individuals and children who are released from immigration custody. 

Recognizing the vital need for legal representation, SA Stands, a strong, non-partisan local coalition, is calling on local leaders to protect the critical rights of community members through the creation of an immigrant legal defense fund in Bexar County. An immigrant legal defense fund will help better protect the rights of immigrants facing deportation and help ensure individuals have their fair day in immigration court. Protection from family separation and deportation is the need of many San Antonians.

Join SA Stands and sign the petition urging Bexar County Commissioners to follow the example of leaders in Harris County and commit $2 million to creating a county-wide immigrant legal defense fund that will expand deportation defense and provide all people, regardless of race, national origin, ethnicity or legal status, with due process under the law.

Kathrine "Kat" Russell is the Unit Director for Removal Defense at RAICES in San Antonio. Kathrine is a San Antonio native, and she came to RAICES in early 2018 to start a universal representation program...

Naveen Flores-Dixit is an immigration attorney and joined American Gateways as a Staff Attorney in June 2021. His work focuses on providing full and limited scope representation to immigrants detained...