Pritzker signs bill allowing Cook County public defender’s office to handle deportation cases

But a lack of funding and personnel could drastically limit how many immigrants the county can represent.

Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Gov. J.B. Pritzker before signing another piece of legislation that expanded protections for immigrant and refugee communities at East Aurora High School in Aurora, Ill., Monday, Aug. 2, 2021.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill Thursday that gives Cook County the green light to appoint public defenders to represent immigrants in deportation proceedings.

The bill, HB 2790, passed the Illinois General Assembly in May and clarifies any conflicts that would prevent the county’s public defenders from representing immigrants in federal immigration court. The bill takes effect in January and only applies to Cook County.

Unlike defendants in criminal court, immigrants in deportation proceedings don’t have the right to government-appointed counsels, and research shows that many of them can’t afford a private attorney. Last fiscal year, nearly 70% of the more than 10,000 immigrants with deportation cases at the Chicago Immigration Court lacked a lawyer, according to federal data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

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An immigration attorney can have a dramatic impact on the outcome of a deportation case. Recent studies that looked at data from immigration courts in Chicago and New York found that immigrants with attorneys were five to 10 times more likely to avoid deportation than those without legal representation.

In a statement celebrating the bill’s signing, State Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowtiz, D-Glenview, an attorney with a background in immigration law who introduced the bill in February, said everyone “deserves representation in a courtroom, regardless of immigration status or income level.”

Public defenders who handle criminal cases will not take on deportation cases. Instead, those cases will be taken up by immigration attorneys hired under the Cook County public defender office’s immigration unit, which opened last year.

The immigration unit, headed by veteran Chicago immigration attorney Hena Mansori, has enough funding to hire two immigration attorneys this year, and Mansori expects the unit to take on its first deportation case early next year.

But a lack of funding and personnel means that the immigration unit will not be able to provide universal representation to all immigrants in need of a lawyer at the Chicago Immigration Court. The unit will prioritize immigrants facing deportation who were represented by a Cook County public defender in a criminal case. That’s because immigrants with a criminal record have a harder time winning any type of relief, Mansori said.

“There’s still a ways to go before we can actually start representing” immigrants in immigration court, she said. But last week’s bill signing was “a critically important step towards getting there.”

In the meantime, Mansori has led several staff-wide training sessions to educate public defenders about the collateral consequences for immigrant defendants in criminal courts. Certain felony and some misdemeanor convictions could prevent an immigrant from normalizing their status or lead to an immigrant losing their green card or long-term visa.

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