Crime & Justice

LA public defender badly needs more immigration lawyers, ACLU says

A 2017 raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Georgia.
A 2017 raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Georgia.
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The L.A. Public Defender desperately needs more immigration lawyers in light of the Trump administration's more aggressive immigration policies, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said Wednesday. The civil liberties group noted that out of 700 attorneys in the public defender's office, only two specialize in immigration.

Each year, public defenders represent thousands of legal permanent residents facing criminal charges. A conviction could land them in deportation proceedings or make them ineligible for citizenship.

The stakes can be high. And with immigration one of the most complex areas of the law, good advice is critical. Deportable offenses range from murder to simple possession of a controlled substance. 

The length of a sentence can make a difference too: The ACLU report highlights one case involving a legal permanent resident convicted of driving a car without the owner’s consent. The public defender was unaware that if his client’s 365-day sentence was one day shorter, he would not have been subject to deportation.

The Trump administration has become much more aggressive in going after legal permanent residents, said immigration lawyer Keli Reynolds, who represented the man who faced deportation.

"Many of them are being detained, whereas before they would have been issued a notice to appear," Reynolds told KPCC.

In another case highlighted by the ACLU, "Margarita C. pleaded guilty in 2012 to receiving aid by misrepresentation. She was sentenced to 500 hours of community service and restitution of $49,000 to the Department of Social Services. At the time, Margarita had a work permit and four U.S. citizen children."

The report goes on to note that federal immigration authorities began deportation proceedings against Margarita C. based upon her conviction. "A simple way for Margarita to have avoided an aggravated felony—and mandatory deportation—would have been a plea to an alternate offense, such as grand theft, with the exact same sentence and restitution," it said.

Here are more numbers from the report, "Transforming Public Defense in the Era of Mass Deportation."