Alone in a California Courtroom: A Call for Legal Representation in Immigration Court

According to an ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations report, in 2015 over 200,000 Mexican and Central American immigrants were deported from the United States by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Jose Padilla, a former reporter and journalist from Honduras, was one of those immigrants. Padilla was deported from Los Angeles to Tijuana, Mexico, early this year, without having the benefit of legal representation. This common problem — lack of legal representation in immigration hearings — has led to protests on the streets of Los Angeles.

I met Padilla at a service center for immigrants called Casa del Migrante (Home for the Migrants) in Tijuana. Two volunteers let me into a gated building. The center looked similar to an indoor apartment complex. I interviewed Padilla in an office using his native language, Spanish, and inquired about his deportation process.

At the border in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Zoraida San Roman
At the border in Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Zoraida San Roman

Padilla described his day at court as a horrible one. When he spoke about the judge, the translator and other people present in the courtroom he said, “They intimidated you if you did not sign,” referring to voluntary departure process. “Many times they would just take your fingerprint or a scribbled line on the paper and process you for deportation.”

When asked if having legal representation in court would have led to a different outcome, he said, “I would not be here.”

Padilla was apprehended in one of ICE’s infamous raids in an apartment complex in Los Angeles.

“They closed off the streets,” he said using hand gestures to paint the scene. “Everyone was there. The FBI, DEA, the Sherriff’s, ICE … they thought we were selling drugs!” he said, incredulous. “They checked our IDs and whoever could not prove they were from the U.S., they were separated, put in chains and loaded into a bus.”

Padilla was detained by immigration officers for seven days, during which time he said he and others in his situation were mistreated. He explained how other immigrants were ridiculed by immigrant officials. He described the detention center as a big warehouse, where they had little privacy and were watched even when they used the restroom. The detention center was cold, the air conditioner blasting on high. It was, in Padilla’s words, a complete “maltrato al ser humano,” abuse toward human beings.

Despite having a passport from his home country of Honduras, Padilla was deported to the Mexican border city of Tijuana and wound up at Casa del Migrante.

When deported, immigrants are taken to their country of origin; however, when they do not have the proper identification that is not always the case. For many Mexican immigrants, for example, the deportation point is the city of Tijuana. Many of them arrive with no money, no identification and no family to help. It is here where they are assessed and offered medical services, and this is also the place where workers and volunteers from Casa del Migrante provide assistance.

Ramiro Hernandez, who has worked and volunteered at Casa del Migrante for three years, said that Casa del Migrante greets deported immigrants right at the border, offering food, shelter and access to other resources.

The organization was established in 1987 and has served over 8,000 immigrants annually ever since. Its goal, besides providing basic needs, is to help immigrants with their transition and reintegration into society. Casa del Migrante offers counseling, job training and placement, spiritual guidance and legal services.

Many immigrants who are deported have trouble adjusting back into society and many do not even know how Mexican currency works, Hernandez said. Once in Tijuana, these displaced people have three options,.

The first option is to go back to their home country, in the case of Central Americans, or their state of origin, in the case of Mexicans. The second is to stay in Tijuana and find the means to try crossing again. The third is to stay in Tijuana, stabilize and integrate into society.

Undocumented immigrants face a deportation process in which the majority are not legally represented in court. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2012 found that out of the 1.2 million deportation cases in the United States only 14 percent secured legal representation.

The study also found that immigrants were “five and a half times” more likely to obtain relief from removal if an attorney represented them.

In Los Angeles, where Padilla was apprehended, attorneys want to provide legal representation for people like him who are facing deportation. Eleven attorneys were arrested during a March 21 protest outside of a federal prison in downtown Los Angeles that holds immigrants facing deportation, according to the Law Professors Blog (LPB) Network.

The attorneys’ demands included “an end to all immigration raids, respect for the legal rights of immigrants during enforcement actions, representation for individuals facing deportation, TPS for Central American migrants, and the exercise of meaningful prosecutorial discretion,” according to the LPB Network.

Graciela Lopez, a program associate from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center – an independent non-profit law firm that focuses on fighting for the rights of immigrants facing deportation proceedings – was one of the protesters.

“We must challenge the system and provide legal services,” Lopez said. “We must not leave anyone behind.”

Padilla migrated to the U.S. to escape the violence of his home country. He revealed in our interview that he was once held hostage for ransom in Honduras. Seeking better opportunities and wanting to help his daughters, he plans to cross the border again.

“God will help me,” he said.

Zoraida San Roman recently graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work with a Master of Social Work. She wrote this story for the USC class Media for Policy Change. 

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Journalism for Social Change (J4SC), a program of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), is a graduate-level training program for students of journalism, public policy and social work, which teaches them how to use journalism as an implement of social change.