Mukasey Sets Limit On Immigrants’ Rights To Lawyer

Mukasey sets limit on immigrants' rights to lawyer

By Amy Taxin
The Associated Press, January 8, 2009

Santa Ana, CA (AP) — The Bush administration has ruled that immigrants facing deportation do not have an automatic right to an effective lawyer, stoking outrage among immigrant advocates who say the government aims to weaken immigrants' right to fair hearings.

In a 33-page decision, Attorney General Michael Mukasey said that the Constitution does not entitle someone facing deportation to have a case reopened based upon shoddy work by a lawyer. He said Justice Department officials do have the discretion to reopen such cases.

Immigrants rights groups said Thursday that Mukasey's decision, which comes less than two weeks before the Bush administration leaves office, rejects decades of established legal practice and threatens a population already vulnerable to fraud.

'People pretend to be lawyers and hang up a shingle and tell the client, 'I am a lawyer and am going to represent you,' and then they don't,' said Nadine Wettstein, director of the American Immigration Law Foundation's Legal Action Center.

'If that were to happen, this decision says tough luck.'

Mukasey's ruling comes after a series of instances in which immigrants claimed poor legal representation and sought to have their cases reopened after they were ordered to leave the country by an immigration judge.

The country's immigration courts do not track how many immigrants seek to reopen cases for this reason, said Susan Eastwood, a spokeswoman for the federal agency that oversees the immigration court system.

Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, could not say why Mukasey issued the ruling at this time.

Louis Piscopo, an immigration attorney in Anaheim, Calif., said making immigrants think twice about who they hire to represent them in court is a good thing but not like this. Rather, he said the ruling would end up hurting many immigrants who are duped by unscrupulous attorneys, making it harder for them to get a fair hearing.

'It is stripping away protections for people,' Piscopo said. 'The decision does say you have no right to counsel, which could mean since you don't have a right to counsel, … whatever kind of counsel you get, it doesn't matter.'

Deportation hearings are administrative proceedings and immigration courts are overseen by an agency in the Department of Justice, not the criminal justice system.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said immigrants need to take responsibility in choosing an attorney. He also said the government has been trying to prevent lawyers from dragging out cases unnecessarily.

'The broad concept is completely valid. Deportation cases are not criminal proceedings, therefore nobody has a right to any kind of attorney let alone a good one,' said Krikorian, whose center seeks more restrictions on immigration.

Nikhil Shah, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, said he almost lost his chance at a green card because he was misled by a paralegal who feigned to be an attorney and failed to properly submit his immigration paperwork.

Shah, who is originally from India, said he could see how easily an immigrant who didn't speak English or know the law could get into trouble in court. 'I think the main focus is to discourage people to reopen their proceedings,' he said of the ruling.

Immigrant rights groups called the ruling a last-ditch effort by the Bush administration to exert political influence over immigration.

Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said groups would pressure the incoming administration to seek to dismiss the ruling.

President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in on Jan. 20.


Last-minute Bush administration immigration changes could affect California
By Matt O'Brien
The Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), January 8, 2009

Ruling Says Deportation Cases May Not Be Appealed Over Lawyer Errors
By John Schwartz
The New York Times, January 8, 2009