Without lawyer, immigrants face intimidation and complex system alone

Universal legal representation would alleviate stress for vulnerable people

Supporters of the DACA program rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court. (Robin Bravender/States Newsroom Washington Bureau)

For centuries, people of all backgrounds have fled persecution seeking a better life and opportunities for their families. Coming from a Jewish background, my ancestors struggled for centuries to find a place where they were safe and welcome. Just like many Americans, my great-great grandparents immigrated to the United States because of its promises of freedom and protection. They were drawn to the ranching communities of Colorado and through hard work established strong roots for generations to come.

Because of them, I am a proud fourth-generation Coloradan and I am able to do the work I do now, supporting immigrants who, just like my great-great grandparents, are seeking a better life for their families.

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As a clinical psychologist, I conduct psychological evaluations for immigrants seeking asylum and other visas in order to remain in the United States. I look for evidence of psychological trauma and other mental health challenges immigrants struggle with as a result of the circumstances they faced in their countries of origin and life in the U.S. The evaluations I provide help strengthen immigrants’ court cases.

While I work alongside immigration attorneys, I’m also acutely aware that most immigrants do not have access to legal representation or mental health professionals and are unaware that a psychological evaluation can strengthen their case. Currently, immigrant detention remains the only legal procedure in the nation where someone can be detained without the right to a government- funded lawyer if they cannot afford one. Without access to a lawyer, immigrants facing deportation confront an intimidating, complicated, and foreign legal system alone.

That is why I support House Bill 21-1194, which grants universal legal representation to individuals in immigration detention who cannot afford a lawyer.

I have personally seen how legal stress exacerbates the psychological trauma, anxiety and depression many immigrants struggle with when they come to this country. Immigrants seeking asylum flee their countries of origin because they face persecution for their religious beliefs, race, ethnicity or gender, to name a few. Not only are they struggling to cope with the circumstances from which they fled and adjusting to life in a new country, sometimes behind bars, but they also face thousands of dollars in legal fees, discrimination within the system, and immigration policies that promote fear. Stress upon stress has an additive impact leading to increasingly poorer mental health outcomes. Universal representation would alleviate some of this stress for immigrants.

I have personally seen how legal stress exacerbates the psychological trauma, anxiety and depression many immigrants struggle with when they come to this country.

From a mental health perspective it is very important for the people I work with to have legal representation. For many immigrants, access to an attorney means someone is advocating for their interests, which is why immigrants with representation are 10 times more likely to successfully navigate the legal system and avoid deportation. However, the cost of legal representation is a huge barrier for most immigrants and is usually unattainable.

Most people will do whatever it takes to gain access to legal representation so that they can bolster their chances of being able to stay in the U.S. For my services in providing psychological evaluations, clients have told me they have pawned off cherished possessions or borrowed money from family members. These are the sacrifices immigrants are forced to make to protect themselves and their loved ones.

One man I worked with told me how he, like many refugees and immigrants, came to this nation seeking the American dream. He hoped he could provide better futures for his children and freedom for his family. But when my client arrived at our border, he was put into handcuffs. He voiced shock and disbelief at how being treated this way was completely opposed to his idea of America.

“I’ve never committed a crime in my life,” he shared with me. The only “crime” he committed was seeking a better life for him and his family. We are treating well-meaning individuals, many who are simply seeking what our ancestors sought, unjustly and inhumanely by not providing access to legal representation.

The immigrants I work with are resilient, amazing individuals who have been through unfathomable situations and mistreatment in their lives. Of all of the people I have worked with in the past decade, there is not a single individual who I would not be happy to have as a neighbor.

I firmly believe we must do everything we can to support immigrants and refugees who come to America with hopes and dreams of a better future for themselves and their children. That’s why I hope Colorado’s legislature passes HB-1194, which provides universal representation for all those in need.

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