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Concertina wire and a security camera line the perimiter of the York County Dentention Center as immigration reform activists protest on September 15, 2015 in York, Pennsylvania. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images.
Concertina wire and a security camera line the perimiter of the York County Dentention Center as immigration reform activists protest on September 15, 2015 in York, Pennsylvania. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images.

The battle for immigration legal services in PA

For immigrants in Pennsylvania, it’s not just finding proper legal counsel, but also making sure it’s reliable.

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For immigration lawyers in Pennsylvania, it’s always a losing battle.

“The need is much greater than the supply,” said David Bennion, an immigration attorney and the executive director of the Free Migration Project.

Bennion’s organization is one of many nonprofit law firms grappling with the overwhelming amount of immigration legal cases in the state.

Since 2016, Philadelphia has become a destination for immigrants because of its status as a sanctuary city. But that is in direct contrast with the actions of ICE’s Philadelphia field office, which according to a 2018 investigation by ProPublica and The Philadelphia Inquirer, led the nation in arresting immigrants without a criminal conviction. The office oversees Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia.

Representation in Philly is better than average because it is home to the most law firms. But those detained in York, PA — home to the largest detention center in the region — don’t have such a luxury.

Pro-bono?

For one, the understood costs of conducting legal work for immigration is often far less than transparent for clients.

The U.S. Justice Department provides a list of pro-bono providers of immigration legal services for every state. It lists seven — all nonprofit — for Philadelphia immigration court and only four for York. The American Bar Association declares under its Model 6.1 rule that lawyers “should aspire” to provide 50 hours per year of pro-bono service. In the case of immigration lawyers, it’s all about location.

In Philadelphia, where a majority of the clients operate outside of a prison and still have jobs, not only is there more freedom for meeting times, but clients can also afford better service. In York, not only is travel time an issue, but operating in a prison means strict meeting times and no income for the client to pay for services.

Some nonprofit and private firms from Philly also operate in York, but it is more costly outside the city. Bennion applauds their work, but criticizes the USJD list for its generalization.

“It’s a little misleading because often the services will cost money depending on the situation,” he said.

Notario Fraud

Another unfortunate development due to the lack of proper legal representation for immigrants is notario fraud. For years, many have been exploiting immigrants using the subtle difference between notaries in the U.S. and notarios in Hispanic countries.

Notarios públicos” are akin to attorneys in Hispanic countries, but in the US, notaries have much less discretion and power.

“They’re unreliable and they don’t know what they’re doing,” said Bennion.

But he also said certain attorneys can give equally bad advice.

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