Last year, the immigration services staff at Madison's Catholic Multicultural Center didn’t represent clients in court. But they still had plenty of work to do, like helping a steady stream of families apply for green cards, citizenship or family reunification.
Court representation tends to be more time consuming and expensive to take on than working on administrative immigration cases, CMC staff said. But starting in 2019, CMC legal staff decided it was time to tackle court representation in addition to their other services, so they could defend those facing the possibility of deportation.
That’s partially because the current “difficult” immigration trends across the country have created more of a need for court representation, said Janice Beers, immigration services coordinator at CMC.
“As thousands of people are forced to flee their homelands and the humanitarian crisis at the border unfolds, the CMC is responding to the call to help our immigrant neighbors in need,” a fundraising call for the program reads.
Beers came on board in 2017 and has been revamping CMC’s immigration services program ever since, always working to build capacity. Saba Baig was hired as a full-time immigration attorney in 2018, and Talita Bornholdt works as a part-time associate immigration attorney.
The team at CMC, located at 1862 Beld St., serves a diverse caseload, with clients from over 55 countries. Baig, Beers and Bornholdt collectively speak English, Spanish, Portugese, Russian and Urdu. Although about 80% of their clients are from Dane County, CMC serves the entire Diocese of Madison.
CMC aims to serve clients who can’t afford private attorneys, so most clients have an income below 150% of the poverty line. CMC charges low fees for services, but never denies services based on ability to pay. Those fees are around 10% of what a private attorney would cost.
The growing legal staff has meant CMC can take more of the cases they’ve been doing for years: helping those applying for citizenship or residency, family reunification, waivers, refugee matters and other immigration matters that don’t require a trip to court.
But beginning this year, they decided they would start representing clients in court, focusing on clients with removal proceedings who are not detained.
DEFENSE AGAINST DEPORTATION
Other places around town, like the Community Immigration Law Center and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Immigrant Justice Clinic, provide pro bono deportation defense, and CILC hopes to hire one or two additional attorneys this summer. CILC and IJM eventually want to provide a public defender model, offering free representation to all individuals in Dane County facing deportation, focusing first on those who are detained.
Erin Barbato, IJC director, said in an email she'd eventually like to see universal deportation representation across the whole state, and "one day, we could have it across the county."
"This may seem to be a lofty goal, but having representation in removal proceedings is the only way to ensure access to justice and due process for all," she said, and called CMC's expansion an “exciting step."
CMC's new service will focus on removal defense for those who are not detained. There are a few ways an immigrant could be in removal proceedings but not be detained, Baig said, like families that arrive at the border seeking asylum and pass a credible fear interview are released on bond. Another example can be individuals who apply for residency but miss an interview and are then put in removal proceedings.
In the past, if someone came to CMC with this type of case, staff had to turn them away, often recommending the private bar. Because deportation hearings are civil matters, those facing deportation aren’t entitled to public defenders.
Defendants may not understand the complicated legal process, may not be native English speakers and may not have access to competent interpreters, Baig said, and representation makes a difference. A system to represent detained individuals facing deportation in New York showed representation led to drastically increased positive outcomes.
Along with the ability to defend clients facing deportation, CMC’s decision to represent clients in court also means they can stay and fight for a case if they have a client whose application is denied, landing them in removal proceedings.
“The continuity of the legal representation, when you work with someone from the get-go and you know the ins and outs of their cases, it makes the representation much stronger and much more likely for a successful outcome,” Beers said.
But representing clients in court is both more time-intensive from a research perspective and requires more resources, like funds for trips to court in Chicago, CMC staff said.
“Taking like one asylum case probably means I have to pass up 10 to 15 other administrative cases,” Baig said.
“It’s a balance. We want to provide this service but we can’t let it overwhelm the program,” said Steve Maurice, assistant director of the CMC. He explained that CMC staff could likely take on a handful of court cases at a time.
That’s especially important as CMC wants to continue to care for its current families, some of whom have been connected to the center for years.
“You helped this one person stay, but what about their spouse, or their children or their parents or their other family? For us, it’s a balance of the new people we want to take on versus serving the families that we already have as our current clients,” Baig said.
To help fund the effort, CMC began a $25,000 crowdfunding campaign this week.
“We just want to build capacity,” Baig said. “There’s a lot of families. I’ve really been struggling with the stories I’ve been hearing and sort of feeling like I want to help, but there’s hundreds of other people and there's all these other cases and there’s like only one of me and one of Janice and one of Tali.”