Sens. Kate Lieber and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward
Sens. Kate Lieber and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, Democrats from Beaverton, on the Senate floor on Feb. 16. (Photo by Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The U.S. Constitution guarantees that anyone facing serious criminal charges can be represented by an attorney, and anyone who can’t afford a lawyer will have one provided for free. People facing deportation don’t have that guarantee of legal counsel. 

That could change under a proposal that passed the Oregon Senate on a 17-8 vote Monday. If it receives approval from the House and Gov. Kate Brown, Senate Bill 1543 would set aside $15 million for attorneys to provide free legal representation on immigration matters, prioritizing deportation cases.

Sen. Kate Lieber, the Beaverton Democrat behind the bill, said it’s driven by fairness.

“The bill is about providing due process to those in need, and allowing a judge to make the decision on whether someone is allowed to remain in this country based on the facts of the case,” she said. “And by the way, as much as we love to hate attorneys, we do make the legal process much smoother for the entire system, including our immigration system.” 

Oregon is home to about 108,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Undocumented people make up about 2.5% of the state’s population, and the vast majority come from Mexico and Central American countries. 

About 9,200 are spared deportation through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which under certain circumstances protects people who entered the country illegally as minors. Everyone else is at risk of deportation, though the federal government prioritizes deporting people who committed serious crimes, who are considered a serious threat to national security or who entered the country recently. 

Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said prioritizing legal representation for immigrants detained by law enforcement means that the state will most likely end up paying to help people who committed crimes remain in the country. He and all other Republicans present Monday voted against the bill. 

“There are certain people that I’m not interested in spending taxpayer funds on trying to keep them in the country,” Knopp said. “I don’t know why we’d want to keep someone who has a felony record of murder, rape, kidnapping in the country.” 

The proposal had support from community service organizations, as well as the Oregon State Bar, the Oregon Education Association, the city of Portland and large unions including the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

While the bill requires that legal services for detained people and those at imminent risk of deportation take priority, the money could also be used for other immigration issues that could use a lawyer’s assistance. 

Lawmakers heard in writing and during a committee hearing earlier this month from several immigrants who got legal help through Equity Corps Oregon, a nonprofit program that has provided pro bono legal counsel to immigrants for the past two years.

Blanca Valle, who described herself in a letter sent to lawmakers as a mother of two from Honduras, said she participated in the program but hasn’t yet been provided an attorney. She had to attend multiple hearings by herself, and she doesn’t know how her case is going, she said. 

“I don’t know what to do or what to say, I don’t know how to act. With an attorney, I would feel more protected, more supported, I would know who to ask any questions I have,” Valle said. “I would like to know how my case is going.” 

In another letter, translated from Spanish, Portland resident Micaela Adamar Gaspar Mendez told lawmakers that she was only able to apply for asylum and receive a work permit because a community organization helped her find a pro bono lawyer.

Gaspar Mendez, 20, left Guatemala as a pregnant 16-year-old because her life was in danger, she wrote. She came to Oregon, where her father lived, and connected with the Equity Corps of Oregon, where a lawyer helped her apply for asylum. Her work permit recently arrived and it changed her life, Gaspar Mendez said. 

“What I want in the United States is a better life for my children,” she said. “In Guatemala where I grew up, there was a lot of poverty and violence. I was only able to study for three years, and then they took me out of school because I had to help my grandparents. I want my children to have a better life.” 

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.