Bush’s AG sets limit on immigrants’ rights to lawyer
By AMY TAXIN, Associated Press Writer
Jan. 8, 2009 (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, Bush’s 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 (DOJ), 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 this isn't the way to do it. 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.''
Svetlana Schreiber, an immigration attorney in Cleveland, informed La Prensa: “To strip away the most fundamental Constitutional rights—the right to effective representation by counsel, as the George W. Bush administration leaves office—is a further demonstration of its disregard of the Bill of Rights, perpetrated by an administration that claims it has gone to Iraq to impose democracy. I hope that this decision will be challenged and overruled.”
Deportation hearings are administrative proceedings and immigration courts are overseen by an agency in the Department of Justice, not the criminal justice system.
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 Hussein Obama will be sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009.
Associated Press Writer Devlin Barrett in Washington, D.C., and Rico de La Prensa contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: Mukasey's order, as well as letters to Mukasey from the ACLU, the ABA, the American Immigration Law Foundation and numerous partners at some of the country’s most prestigious law firms opposing the change or objecting to insufficient time allotted for submitting briefs are available online at: www.aclu.org/immigrants/gen/37064res20081007.html