Public defenders can now defend noncitizens facing deportation in immigration court


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

The Cook County Public Defender’s Office can now represent undocumented people in court, regardless of their citizenship.

Avani Kalra, Assistant City Editor

Immigration rights activists like Eréndira Rendón have spent years fighting for what she calls universal representation. 

Rendón’s organization, The Resurrection Project, is part of the Defenders for All campaign, a coalition of more than 40 community groups who work to advance due process for people facing deportation. 

The Cook County Public Defender’s Office can now represent noncitizens facing deportation in immigration court, regardless of their citizenship. Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle announced this change in September 2021. 

The Illinois House Bill permitting this change, HB 2760, passed in August 2021 and applies to Illinois counties with a population of more than 3,000,000 residents. The bill went into effect this January.

“This new law moves us another step forward in ensuring that everyone, regardless of their immigration status, is provided with fair representation in our court system and without costing them their status or homes,” Preckwinkle said in a September news release. “This is equity in action.”

The law allowed the immigration pilot unit in the public defender’s office to defend noncitizens against deportation.

“We wanted to zero in and focus on this last piece of the puzzle,” Rendón said. “We wanted the city, the state, and now the county to have established programs for this type of legal service.” 

Hena Mansori is the attorney supervisor for this unit. She said she has two main goals for the office: implementing a standardized procedure for public defenders representing noncitizen clients in criminal court and setting up a direct representation program. 

Mansori said two staff attorneys will join the unit this month, and it will launch shortly thereafter. 

“I want to train the unit to really make strong constitutional arguments for our clients,” Mansori said. “How to not accept the status quo.”

The Justice Department said in 2021 that a minimum of 40% of people facing deportation do not have representation. According to a study conducted by the American Immigration Council, people with lawyers are five times more likely to access immigration relief than those without. 

Mansori said the necessity of additional protection for undocumented immigrants became apparent to her in the last few years. 

“There has been a realization over the past few years at the local and state level that, in order to protect immigrants and give them a better chance of being able to remain here with their families, we can’t rely on the federal government,” Mansori said. 

Chicago became the first public entity to provide funding for immigrant services in 2017 with the Chicago Legal Protection Fund. In 2019, the coalition created the Illinois Access to Justice Program, which set aside $5 million for immigration legal services. 

Though Rendón said those steps have already benefited Chicago immigrants, an immigration pilot unit was necessary because the public defender’s office lacked the institutional support to take and track immigration cases. 

Financing provided through the Legal Protection Fund and Access to Justice programs primarily funded representation through nonprofit organizations. Rendón said nonprofit organizations are not equipped to represent every case. She said she and her partners at the Defenders for All Coalition hope the new measure will further change the nonprofit role in the immigration process. 

“Nonprofit entities were really supposed to function as a way to fill in the gaps,” Rendón said. “Before this bill, there was no public defender program for undocumented people. Now we’re finally going to be able to do that.”

Still, Rendón said, the fight is not over. 

Though some are now entitled a public defender while facing deportation in Illinois, this is not true across the country. Rendón is working with the National Partnership for New Americans to remedy a larger trend that bars undocumented immigrants from accessing most types of federal services and assistance. 

“Cook County has always been at the forefront of immigrant inclusion,” Rendón said. “This is another step toward convincing the country that immigrants are here, immigrants are part of the country, immigrants are paying taxes and immigrants also have the right to due process.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the impact of HB 2760 and who it affects.The Daily regrets the error. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avanidkalra

Related Stories: 

Northwestern community weights in on what Biden’s presidency looks like for the future of immigration reform

International students talk upcoming election, Trump immigration policies 

Northwestern among 29 Illinois colleges and universities that submitted a joint letter to congressional members on immigration