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Immigration Assistance Program: Fixing what's broken 

Legal project is often all that's between a defendant and the gavel

A private security guard steps into the lobby of a building in an office park off Albemarle Road and announces instructions to men seated in plastic chairs.

Some understand him and stand, cueing those who don't speak English to rise as well. They're told to line up against a wall and walk into a room — it's actually a courtroom where a judge will decide their fate in this country.

In the 12 months ending Sept. 30, the Obama administration spent a record $18 billion enforcing immigration laws, more than all other federal criminal law-enforcement efforts combined, according to the nonpartisan research group Migration Policy Institute. But because undocumented immigrants aren't granted public defenders, many go through the legal system underrepresented — including those under 18. Of the 41 cases on the docket this December day, only about half have attorneys listed beside their names.

Broken system, indeed.

Before the men file into the court, Jakelin Melgar appears from a door next to which a sign reads "Pro Bono Room." Speaking Spanish, he ushers a few men into the room to meet with immigration attorney Jim Melo. The Durham-based lawyer conducts a confidential triage interview, a screening process for undocumented immigrants that determines the basics of their cases and then gives them advice or, in some cases, finds them free representation.

Melo is part of the Immigration Assistance Program, an opportunity for the thousands of undocumented immigrants who show up for court in Charlotte without counsel to meet with a licensed attorney, collect advice and maybe get representation. Similar programs that find undocumented immigrants attorneys exist in the U.S., but what makes this project unique is the screening process — the advice given so quickly before trial — and its proximity to the courtroom. Usually, defendants must seek such programs themselves. This one comes to them.

One undocumented immigrant, Reyes, who opts not to give his last name, is in court on this day in December. Originally from Mexico, he was detained for driving without a license on his way to work. While he doesn't find an attorney today, he does walk away with some help. "I was happy to have advice," he says through a translator. "I wanted to know what options I had."

Immigration law wasn't widely practiced in Charlotte before 2008, mostly because there wasn't much opportunity — the closest immigration court was in Atlanta. That changed when one opened five years ago in the Queen City to serve North and South Carolina. "There were thousands of people coming to this court who didn't have representation," mostly because they didn't have the money or didn't know they needed a lawyer, says George Miller, an adjunct professor at the Charlotte School of Law and a volunteer with the Immigration Assistance Project. The Charlotte Immigration Court processed about 3,500 cases in fiscal year 2011, the most recent figures available.

The project came from the Immigration Working Group, started by local lawyers in 2007 as an informal way to troubleshoot immigration issues. The group passed its idea to local nonprofit Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, which now oversees and funds it. The program was kickstarted with a $25,000 grant from the Foundation of the Carolinas just before the immigration court opened in Charlotte in November 2008. But eventually the grant ran out, so now the program relies on donations from the Charlotte School of Law and members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Roughly two dozen lawyers volunteer their time.

Danielle Lombard created the pilot for the screening program. She says more than half of the undocumented immigrants who are screened are eligible for representation, many because they are victims of crimes themselves, like domestic violence. Lawyers explain voluntary departure — when someone forgoes the deportation process and chooses to return to their native country — if someone's case doesn't stand much chance in court.

Two days a month, the courtroom fills with undocumented children, who must represent themselves if they can't afford an attorney. Many, of course, cannot. "Without representation essentially it's children standing up to explain why they're in the country," says Peter Thompson, a Charlotte Law School professor who runs an immigration law clinic. Last year, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, the North Carolina Justice Center in Raleigh and Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville sought to find representation for every minor. But resources were — and still are — limited.

"We have entertained the idea of the [Immigration Assistance Program] being like a public defender's office and even hiring a lawyer to do these cases," Miller says. "But we don't have the money."

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