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Follow our coverage of immigration and related issues affecting Latinos in the Charlotte area.

Free Court Representation Program For Immigrants In Charlotte Achieves First Legalization

Charlotte Immigration Court plaque
Laura Brache
Data from TRAC at Syracuse University shows that most of the immigrants fighting their deportation at the Charlotte Immigration Court over the last 20 years did so without a lawyer.

Updated 12:56 p.m.

Este artículo también está disponible en español en La Noticia.

Viviana Pineda was only 2 years old when her dad died. Without him, Pineda’s mom struggled to raise her and her older sister in her hometown in Honduras. So, her grandmother suggested they come live with her in the United States. And they did.

Seven years ago, the three left Honduras and settled in Charlotte. When they arrived, she says, her mother abandoned them.

“When we got to Charlotte, we emancipated from my mom because she didn’t take care of us, so the only person I really have is my older sister because my grandma had to go back to Honduras,” Pineda said.

Newly emancipated, Pineda applied for special immigrant juvenile status. It’s a type of visa for young immigrants who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent while living in the U.S. Even with evidence of her mother’s abuse and neglect, the judge denied her application and ordered her to be deported.

“My sister had gotten her green card, but I got a deportation order, so it was such a difficult and uncertain time,” she said.

Pineda got legal help, and that lawyer filed an appeal. This bought her more time. She says her 22-year-old sister, Yazmin, worked a factory job so Pineda could stay in school. Last year, she graduated from Harding University High School.

After graduation, and six years after arriving, Pineda became a lawful permanent resident.

The latest attorney who worked her case was part of a new pilot program called the Charlotte Partnership for Immigrant Families Initiative. Through funding from the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Hispanic Federation, it provides undocumented immigrants facing deportation with free legal representation in court. Pineda was one of the program’s first clients.

“I wouldn’t have been able to afford representation at all with my situation," she said. "And even though my situation is tough, I know there are people out there who have it even worse and they need the help.”

Unlike in state and federal courts, court-appointed attorneys don’t exist in immigration courts. That’s because immigration courts are administrative.

They focus on cases between administrative government agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, and everyday people. In immigration courts, the cases are between undocumented immigrants and the Department of Justice.

Immigration judges are typically career attorneys appointed by the attorney general to serve as his delegates across the country. In 2018, the Trump administration rolled out case quotas for immigration judges in an attempt to speed up deportations and clear the government’s immigration case backlog.

The Charlotte Immigration Court is actually one of the toughest in the nation. So, all the intricacies of how immigration courts work create a need for legal representation.

Thirty-five out of the 63 courts across the country have free legal representation programs called “universal representation programs.” This is what the pilot program that helped Pineda is based on. Right now this is the only program of its kind in the state. However, there are other numerous free and low-cost legal representation options available for immigrants fighting their deportation in court.

“This is a program that’s not only going to be very important for the families that we’ll be serving but also because it’s going to help fill in a huge gap that we’re seeing in North Carolina as it relates in particular to representation rates in immigration court,” said Daniel Valdez, director of North Carolina and mid-South operations at the Hispanic Federation.

The gap Valdez is talking about appears in a recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice. It ranked North Carolina 47th out of 50 states in representation rates in immigration court.

Sharon Dove, director of the Immigrant Justice Program at the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, says representation plays an important role in the outcomes in immigration court.

“People come into the immigration court without speaking the language that the immigration court is conducted in, let alone without any legal knowledge," Dove said. "And it is (like) a deer in the headlights, to say the least."

More than 29,000 immigrants received deportation orders in the Charlotte Immigration Court over the last 20 years. Out of those, analysis shows only 2,678 immigrants were granted asylum, and just a small fraction got it without having an attorney.

Cost is one of the main reasons immigrants forgo legal representation. A private immigration attorney can cost anywhere from $100-$300 an hour, and cases can take years. The average length of pending cases in the Charlotte Immigration Court is almost two years. Pineda’s case, alone, took seven years to resolve. Dove says those costs add up quickly for immigrant families who tend to work hourly jobs with low wages.

The program has already identified at least 120 immigrant clients for its first year. But without legal help, Dove describes the consequences as “tremendous.”

“This is somebody who lives here, who has a family here, who may have kids here," Dove said. "And he or she is facing being yanked out of that situation and sent to a country that he hasn't lived in for years.".

There’s enough money to keep the pilot program going through this year. Because it’s so new, it’ll be a while before its impact is known.

For Pineda, as a permanent legal resident, she now can get a driver's license and her first full-time job. She plans to save for college and become a small business owner, so in the future she can provide for a family of her own.

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Updated: February 19, 2021 at 1:07 PM EST
The audio in this story has been updated to clarify this is not the only free legal representation program available to immigrants fighting their deportation in immigration court.