Can an army of lawyers stop Trump's mass deportations?

Less than a quarter of Mexican nationals in deportation proceedings have a lawyer. An influential group of Mexicans wants to change that – and throw a wrench in the immigration court system.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Migrants arrive at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter after being deported from the US, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017.

A group of prominent Mexican officials, legislators, and other political figures wants Mexico to resist President Trump’s deportation plans by assigning lawyers to fight cases in US immigration court, utilizing tough legal tactics that could jam up the workings of an already backlogged system.

Monarca, as the group is named – after the monarch butterfly that travels freely between Mexico and the United States – is meeting with immigrant-rights groups in Phoenix on Saturday to discuss details of the plan. They also hope to meet with the city’s mayor and Sen. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, long active in talks for a comprehensive immigration reform, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who hasn’t taken a position on the plan, says his administration will take steps to defend its citizens living in the US, including allocating $50 million to help undocumented immigrants facing deportation. But Monarca’s plan could be the most pointedly obstructionist of any measure suggested.

"The backlog in the immigration system is tremendous," former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, a group member and New York University professor, told the Journal. Lawyers deployed to deportation cases could double or triple the existing backlog of cases "until Trump desists in this stupid idea," he said.

The idea puts a spotlight on an immigration court system which, unlike the US criminal system, has no constitutionally guaranteed right to an attorney. According to a September study by the American Immigration Council, only 37 percent of people facing deportation nationwide – and just 21 percent of Mexicans – have legal representation.

Monarca is making an unusual bet: that lawyers could slow down the process to such an extent that mass deportations would become unworkable – or, seen another way, that a court system geared toward deporting may not function if immigrants can have their day in court.

Mr. Castañeda told the Journal that funds would go toward bail payments as well as lawyers, who should litigate court delays as violations of due process. That tactic, he acknowledged, could require those facing deportation to wait in detention centers for months as their cases unfold. 

But the deployment of legal representation could make all the difference for countless men and women. According to the AIC study, only 2 percent of immigrants without a lawyer won the right to stay in the country.

Monarca's efforts parallel those in major Democratic-led cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York, where authorities have either created or allocated additional funding for immigration public-defender services after Trump's election. Legislators in California have proposed establishing a state-wide fund, according to Southern California Public Radio. 

Other options being explored by Monarca, according to Castañeda, include requiring US immigration authorities to provide documentation proving deportees’ Mexican nationality before pushing them across the southern US border.

"We want to be friends," Mexican Senator Arturo Zamora told the Journal, "but in the face of continued hostility we don’t have to keep a friendly attitude forever."

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