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Legal clinic, picnic celebrate creation of immigrant legal defense fund

People and organizations gather for Durango’s Picnic in the Park on Saturday evening. The event was held to celebrate the creation of Colorado’s immigrant legal defense fund. (Nick Gonzales/Durango Herald)
Statewide fund could award grants for legal services next year

On June 25, Gov. Jared Polis signed HB 1194 into law, establishing an immigrant legal defense fund. For many, this is a cause for celebration, and the inspiration for events happening Saturday in Durango.

Compañeros, a resource center for immigrants in the Four Corners, in coordination with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, held a legal clinic in which people could get free 30-minute consultations with immigration attorneys at the Durango Public Library. It was followed by Durango’s Picnic in the Park, a cultural celebration including music, dance and food that started at 4 p.m. at Rotary Park.

Ben Waddell, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Fort Lewis College, is on the board of Compañeros. He said the organization is currently working toward becoming an accredited representative with the Department of Justice, which would allow it to provide legal services.

He said the fund created by HB 1194 will greatly benefit organization such as Compañeros and the people they serve by giving people access to due process, regardless of their immigration status.

“It’s a pretty phenomenal thing,” he said. “There’s only $100,000 initially in this fund, which will begin in 2022. It allows for private donations ... so it kind of creates this meeting point between the public and the private so people can donate to this fund. And then organizations like Compañeros, as we start providing more legal services, we can actually get grants through this fund to help support that work.”

Waddell said when people are currently detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 70% of them go before immigration judges without representation.

“Unlike our public system in which public defenders are available, these folks are going before judges, oftentimes not speaking the same language, and really have no idea what they’re signing, what they’re being asked to commit to,” he said. “What we have found in practice is that the majority of people who go before a judge without representation are much more likely to be deported, whereas people who have representation are much more likely to get deportation holds, which allows them to stay in the country and take their case – whether they’re looking for asylum or they’re looking for a U visa in the case of victims of violence – it allows them to pursue due process.”

In a speech at the event at Rotary Park, CIRC policy manager Raquel Lane-Arellano said immigration proceedings are the only legal proceedings in the United States where somebody can be detained without the right to an attorney.

“Anyone who has an immigration court proceeding in Colorado will qualify as long as they are at or bellow 200% of the federal poverty line and as long as their immigration case is in Colorado,” she said.

The fund is designed to focus on people who have been detained and are in removal proceedings and the fund does not have any criminal carve-outs, she said.

“We’re not turning people away because they had any experience with the criminal justice system,” Lane-Arellano said.

Waddell said the fund is important for everyone, not just undocumented immigrants.

“It’s easy to look at this and go, ‘well, these are people without legal status, why would public funds be used for this?’” Waddell said. “But I think it’s extremely important for people to recognize that supporting due process for everyone in this country is fundamental to upholding the constitutional rights we all benefit from. It’s not only a win for undocumented immigrants in this country and the organizations that support them, it’s a huge win for constitutional rights in this country.”

The legislation creating the fund is the first of its kind at a state level, but Waddell said he doubts it will be the last.

“At the national level, there’s almost 12 million people that lack documentation and, at least the case of in Colorado, having access to a legal fund like this will allow them to benefit from the constitutional rights we all have,” he said. “It’s historic in that sense. It’s only Colorado at this point, but I think this legislation will be seen as the mold for other legislation across the nation.”

ngonzales@durangoherald.com

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