Universal representation—the idea that every immigrant facing deportation should have the right to a publicly funded lawyer if they cannot afford one—has gained significant momentum nationally since 2016. Universal representation programs are emerging in politically diverse jurisdictions of all sizes in red, blue, and “purple” states; in cities and counties along the coasts; and throughout the South and Midwest.

As immigration arrests and detention have soared in recent decades, families have been systematically separated and immigrants increasingly stripped of their rights, making them more vulnerable to deportation.See Module 1 of this toolkit for a description of how a series of federal immigration policies enacted since 1996 have increasingly criminalized immigration; Karen Berberich, Annie Chen, Corey Lazar, et al., Advancing Universal Representation: A Toolkit, Module 1: The Case for Universal Representation (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, National Immigration Law Center, and Center for Popular Democracy, 2018), 3-4, https://perma.cc/DX38-5XND. In response, communities throughout the country have launched legal representation programs as a last line of defense. In an especially polarized and divisive political climate, local communities and governments have led the way in putting forth new strategies that help stabilize and unify families, protect communities, and define local values. Universal representation programs are popular commonsense policy solutions, countering the injustice and disruption that federal immigration enforcement has brought to communities and ensuring access to due process and fairness for all people.

Together with broad public support for government-funded attorneys for immigrants, local appropriation of funds for universal representation programs is growing. This support is helping build momentum nationwide toward legislative proposals that establish the right to counsel for immigrants in deportation proceedings. As of this writing, more than 35 jurisdictions in 18 states have funded deportation defense programs, including those in the SAFE Network and the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP).For more information about the SAFE Network, see Vera Institute of Justice, “SAFE Network: Local Leaders Keeping Families Together and Communities Safe,” www.vera.org/safe-network. For more information about the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), see “The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project: Universal Representation for Detained Immigrants Facing Deportation in Upstate New York,” www.vera.org/projects/new-york-immigrant-family-unity-project. Several states, including California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington have allocated state funding for deportation defense.For more information about New Jersey, see State of New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy, “Murphy Administration Delivers on Promise to Provide Legal Representation for Immigrants Facing Detention and Deportation,” press release (Trenton, NJ: State of New Jersey, November 19, 2018), https://perma.cc/HA3D-F33E. For more on Illinois, see Sophia Tareen, “Groups Launch $10M Legal Aid Plan for Immigrants, Ex-Inmates,” Associated Press, February 2, 2020, https://apnews.com/2b537f21460191e1b0d78be54c574c83. For more on New York, see State of New York, “Liberty Defense Project,” https://perma.cc/Y7GJ-RLZB. For more on California, see California Immigrant Policy Center, “One California: Immigrant Services Funding—Providing Immigration Assistance, Services for Citizenship and Support for Remedies from Deportation,” https://perma.cc/XJL6-A3QC. For more on Oregon, see Erika Bolstad, “Oregon Funds Program to Help Immigrants with Legal Aid,” Oregon Live, November 23, 2019, https://perma.cc/LBJ4-WMUX. For more on Washington, see State of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, “Inslee Announces $1.2 Million for Civil Legal Aid Funding to Northwest Immigrant Rights Project,” press release (Olympia, WA: Washington Governor Jay Inslee, June 20, 2018), https://perma.cc/GZF4-9XWW. These local, regional, and state programs are steadily creating a national movement toward the ultimate goal of a federal right to government-funded counsel for immigrants and a more equitable vision of justice.

Module2 Figure1 V4

Moving universal representation to the policy agendas of local and state governments depends on strategic advocacy, organizing, and communications campaigns. Because local and state budgets are facing heightened scrutiny due to the COVID-19 pandemic, holding government accountable through organized advocacy will be especially critical to this movement.

Like any campaign, effectiveness and success will depend on a variety of unique local factors. Although no formula can prescribe the strategies that will ultimately advance universal representation programs, advocates in many jurisdictions across the country have used tactics and strategies that provide invaluable lessons.

This module aims to provide insights and tools based on lessons from local and state campaigns. Some sections of this toolkit may be more helpful or applicable than others, depending on the context of each campaign. As more campaigns gain momentum, the exchange of strategies and lessons learned will help further the longer-term goal of federally funded universal representation nationwide.