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Thousands Of Immigrants In Missouri, Kansas Go Without Lawyers In Immigration Court

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
Kelly Jiménez addressed a small crowd at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, during the launch of the Deportation Defense Legal Network. Jimenez's brother committed suicide in custody. "

Of the 38,000 people in Missouri who wound up in immigration court since 2002, 55 percent did not have lawyers. Kansas saw less than half that number of people in immigration court, but similarly, just over half of those immigrants went without lawyers.

That's according to a report released in May by Syracuse University, which tracked immigration court cases from February 2002 to May 2018, beginning from the moment immigrants are initiated in immigration court.

Kansas City area immigration attorney Megan Galicia explains there are many reasons immigrants do not have legal representation. She says when immigrants arrive, often they don't know they need an attorney, and if they know, they aren't in a position to look for one. 

"They're getting started in a new country, and focusing like anybody would on survival," Galicia says.

Beyond that, on the whole, there aren't many lawyers who specialize in immigration, especially in rural areas. Language is also, often, a barrier. 

And, because most immigration cases are considered civil rather than criminal sanctions, immigrants are not automatically provided an attorney if they can't afford one.

Being detained only makes getting a lawyer more difficult, Galicia says.

According to the Syracuse data, since 2002, 60 percent of the 38,000 immigrants processed in Missouri were detained, whereas only 8 percent of the 15,000 were detained in Kansas.

"People need to have money to make phone calls to their family, and the attorney is often not allowed to call in. It can be extraordinarily difficult. They are largely cut off from the outside world," Galicia says. 

In May, Galicia and other Kansas City immigration attorneys came together to address this issue with the launch of the Deportation Defense Legal Network, or DDLN. The group says immigrants have a right to legal counsel in court, and vow to volunteer hours and represent immigrants, free of charge.

The launch came one year after the death of Jean Jiménez-Joseph, an immigrant from Panama who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Jiménez-Joseph died in ICE custody. According to lawyers, he had been in solitary confinement for weeks at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia when he committed suicide.

"As an immigrant battling multiple mental illnesses, the treatment he received was inhumane," his sister Kelly Jiménez told a crowd at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in May.

Galicia didn't represent Jiménez-Joseph until he was transferred to Stewart from a county jail. Before the transfer, she says he was eligible for bond, but he didn't have representation. 

She says having a lawyer would have kept him out of Stewart, and could have saved his life.

That was her motivation to start DDLN. Since their launch in May, they have grown from two lawyers to 25, and currently have three active cases.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @_tudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
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