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Send in the lawyers!

Kansas City law firms are being tapped for attorneys willing to volunteer to represent immigrants who are in deportation proceedings.
Kansas City law firms are being tapped for attorneys willing to volunteer to represent immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. Big Stock Photo

As battle lines are drawn over the fate of undocumented immigrants in the United States, squadrons of volunteer attorneys, quickly schooled in the basics of immigration law, are mustering in what may be the most inspiring response so far to the Trump administration’s drive to deport.

There’s a network forming in Kansas City, with plans to duplicate efforts soon in other Midwestern cities such as Omaha and St. Louis.

Appeals were made to major law firms, and more than 50 lawyers have already stepped up, assigned to work pro bono with a deserving immigrant scooped up by immigration agents. The lawyers will mostly assist at bond hearings, the stage at which good legal representation can make the difference between summary deportation and a chance for detainees to remain with family in the U.S. while resolving their legal status.

The volunteer effort is being managed via an int portal, that’s fed pertinent data on each immigrant. The attorneys are making a three to five hour commitment for each case through the Deportation Defense Legal Network (DDLNKC.org).

Advocates for the program argue that immigrants who are being detained and have counsel are four times more likely to be released (44 percent with counsel versus 11 percent without). They are eleven times more likely to try and find a legal route to remain in the country.

There’s a reason the difference is so stark: Often, it’s not necessarily the merits of someone’s case that dictates the outcome, it’s how well they understand their rights.

Good legal counsel for detainees is necessary because, clearly, a war on immigrants has been launched. The Trump Justice Department, livid with the inaccurate perception that California is not cooperating with federal immigration officials, has sued the state.

Hundreds of young people, brought to the U.S. as children, are lapsing into dicey legal territory every day — despite having presented themselves before our government, paid fees, allowed themselves to be fingerprinted, photographed and have other biometrics taken. No matter, with Congress stalled on legislative relief and the president dead-set against continuing the DACA program worked out by the Obama administration, increasing numbers are now finding themselves open to the threat of deportation.

And long-standing guidelines on whom to prioritize for deportation and whom to spare have been thrown to the wind.

Anecdotal evidence indicates a sharp shift in attitude. Immigrants who have been allowed to remain in the good graces of the federal government as long as they check in regularly with immigration agents now are not coming out of those meetings. They’re literally being whisked out another door, taken into custody.

Immigrant communities are starting to feel that no one is safe.

For all the heated rhetoric that immigration generates, immigration law is a rather dry matter. A person’s legal status is administratively managed. And it can change day-to-day. It’s the dealings of lawyers, nuances of the law to find out if appropriate guidelines were followed, applications were made on time, or even if there is a legal route for a particular migrant to apply and enter, much less work or stay long term, headed toward U.S. citizenship. It’s paperwork.

The detailed work appeals to Bob Grove, the director of the Deportation Defense Legal Network. He’s a software person by trade, but he was so dismayed after the election of Donald Trump that he set aside his career and began focusing on activism. The IT background is useful though, as the Network computerizes data on specific immigrants’ cases into a portal, which can then be accessed by attorneys. Only immigrants who aren't flight risks and have no criminal violations are being considered.

The idea is similar to one run by the Innovation Law Lab, a program Grove ran across when he began meeting with Kansas City immigration attorneys. “With this administration, all the rules are being changed,” Grove says. The rug is being pulled out from under immigrants. “There’s no justice there.” They just need representation.

Grove’s pitch rang true to attorneys at the major law firms, people who well understand the difficulties that the average person would have trying to navigate any legal system alone.

Case by case, the push is on to even the playing field. It’s a relatively simply response, all about fairness. In that way, it feels very American.

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