Posted by: Laura John | February 20, 2013

Living (with) the Sixth Amendment

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial… and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

– Sixth Amendment, U.S Constitution

Program for the "Building Justice" conference

Program for the “Building Justice” conference

Although the U.S Constitution guarantees the right to legal counsel for people accused of a crime, this right is not extended to asylum seekers (and all migrants) in immigration proceedings due to the narrow wording of the sixth amendment. This is despite the severe consequences of an asylum seeker losing their case and being wrongfully deported to a country in which they fear persecution.

Nationally, only 50% of immigrants are represented and for those in detention, only 16% are represented. Several studies have documented the significant impact of legal representation; one found that asylum seekers with representation were successful at rates four to six times higher than those without legal representation.

Human Rights First has been at the forefront of improving access to legal representation for asylum seekers. As part of an ongoing dialogue, we hosted a conference in New Jersey on January 25, 2013 called “Building Justice: Increasing Quality Immigration Representation in New Jersey.” The conference brought together judges, private bar, law school clinics, legal service providers, academics, government offices and foundations to discuss practical steps to increase representation.

While the ideal is universal, state-funded legal representation for all immigrants, pragmatism requires alternative models that help fill the current gap in service provision. Key ideas discussed at the conference include increasing incentives for lawyers to represent asylum seekers pro bono (for free), expanding legal orientation programs in detention centers and creating a court screening program to link asylum seekers with lawyers (more on this in my next blog).

While there is certainly a need for more legal representation, it is important that this representation is of an appropriate standard. Unfortunately, there are some unscrupulous lawyers in New York (and some that aren’t even lawyers!) who take advantage of immigrants who are unfamiliar with the system. During my internship I have met with at least three asylum seekers who have received questionable, if not entirely inadequate, legal representation. In fact, in December last year, 26 people were arrested by the FBI for immigration fraud, six of whom were lawyers.

It is clear that there are many hardworking lawyers (including all of my colleagues at HRF!) already investing their time and resources into helping asylum seekers navigate the complex legal system, but as is generally the case with this field of work, there is much more that needs to be done. With only a few more weeks of my internship left, I hope that I can play a small part in helping to address this very big problem.

With the real Liberty!

Me with the Statue of Liberty


  1. […] program will be recognized and it will be renewed for a second term. Further, as I mentioned in my last blog, one of the key recommendations from the recent “Building Justice” conference was replicating […]

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