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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Colorado needs an immigrant legal defense fund so no one has to go to court alone

State lawmakers should do everything in their power to ensure Colorado families remain together, free from fear and persecution driven by politics.

Sole breadwinners and primary caretakers whose lives are rooted in Colorado, arrested on their way to work without an official order of deportation. Individuals targeted as criminals because of prior charges, not convictions. Entire families, dehumanized and treated like animals during Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests and while in custody.

As a hotline coordinator, these are the stories I hear nearly every day, which reflect the ever-growing climate of fear and injustices facing Colorado’s immigrant communities. 

Every story I hear is unique, but one barrier to justice is clear throughout all my conversations: A lack of access to legal representation.

Laura Peniche

Unlike other legal matters, in immigration detention cases, someone can be held without the right to a government-funded lawyer if they cannot afford a lawyer themselves. Those without representation, whether they are children, refugees, or asylum seekers, are forced to confront an unjust and complicated system alone. 

Immigrants with legal representation are 3.5 times more likely to be released from detention on bond and 10 times more likely to win their cases. But in the past five years, more than two thirds of detained immigrants went to court alone, dealing with complex legal cases without a lawyer to advocate for their interests.

Fortunately, municipal leaders in Colorado have recognized this injustice and taken initiative to correct it. 

Last November, the Denver City Council allocated $500,000 to the Denver Immigrant Legal Services Fund (DILSF), strengthening its support for lawyers on the front lines fighting for immigrants’ health, freedom, and access to due process. 

Since 2017, DILSF has provided free and quality legal services for hundreds of immigrants, including those in detention, women fleeing domestic abuse, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, and asylum seekers. Efforts are underway in Fort Collins to establish a proposal for a legal defense fund prior to city elections in April. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

And now, state legislators will soon debate House Bill 1194, establishing a statewide fund to provide universal representation in Colorado. The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on the measure the afternoon of Tuesday, March 30. 

But this ongoing fight for the safety and dignity of immigrants is just beginning. While I applaud leaders in Colorado’s cities for standing in solidarity with immigrant communities, there are significant gaps in access to legal representation for immigrants who don’t live in metropolitan areas. 

Many people who call our hotline for legal support live outside of Denver County, making them ineligible to secure an immigration lawyer through DILSF, which is the state’s only publicly-funded universal representation program.

The impotence of not being able to help callers who need to secure the release of their detained loved one has been one of the most difficult aspects of my job. Without access to a publicly-funded attorney, individuals have to navigate a complex legal system alone, or go without representation at all, and families are broken apart.  

After working with dozens of immigrants across the state, I know access to universal legal representation for all Coloradans is more critical than ever.

Colorado legislators have an opportunity to build on the growing momentum in Denver and Fort Collins by establishing a statewide legal defense fund. Through this statewide fund, any Coloradan with a deportation case would qualify to receive a free lawyer if they cannot afford one. Every human being should have the right to go to court with proper representation.

As we navigate a global pandemic and enter a period of transition, immigrants will continue to grapple with the disproportionate impacts of a legal system that over-prosecutes and over-criminalizes them, no matter who leads our country. 

Universal representation programs like the DILSF and HB 1194 are common-sense solutions to counter the horrors of a broken federal immigration system. 

Without universal legal representation, immigrants will continue to be detained in for-profit ICE detention facilities that have been known to conceal the true spread of COVID-19 and could be subjected to expedited deportation proceedings.

As an immigrant who grew up undocumented in Colorado, I deeply feel the pain of so many families across our state who have tried their best to comply in this immigration system that is too complicated and often punishes them too severely for things they have already paid for. 

Our state legislators should vote in favor of HB 1194 to stand up against civil and human rights violations and do everything in their power to ensure Colorado families remain together, free from fear and persecution driven by politics.


Laura Peniche is the hotline coordinator at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. She is an immigrant from Mexico and has lived in Colorado since she was 13.


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