AILA proudly welcomes this blog post from Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee Law Student Scholarship recipient Melissa McElroy, part of a series intended to highlight the important ways in which diversity, equity, and inclusion inform immigration law and policy. More information about AILA’s DEI Committee and its important work is available on AILA’s website 

In June 2021, Colorado passed HB21-1194, which created a statewide Immigration Legal Defense Fund (ILDF). The Act was created to provide a lawyer to anyone in Colorado who is facing deportation proceedings and is unable to afford one on their own. Currently, people in immigration detention or immigration-related court proceedings have no right to an attorney, with some limited exceptions for those with diminished capacity. There is currently no equivalent to the public defender system for immigration court.

The ILDF of $100,000 is administered by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE). The CDLE awards grants from the fund to qualifying nonprofit organizations that provide legal advice, counseling, and representation to indigent clients in immigration proceedings. Many organizations in the Denver area are already doing excellent work advocating on behalf of immigrants and will greatly benefit from this ongoing stable source of funding.

For example, the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN) has an existing Universal Representation Project, which provides free legal representation to Denver residents detained in the Aurora Immigration Detention Center. RMIAN’s program is run collaboratively with the Denver Immigrant Legal Defense Fund and the Vera Institute of Justice, Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Network. In 2021, RMIAN’s attorneys directly represented 761 clients and taught 2,337 people in “Know Your Rights” presentations.

Universal Representation programs have several advantages across the immigration system. Since there is currently no right to legal counsel for people in immigration proceedings, Universal Representation attorneys help fill the gap. Universal Representation attorneys go where there is the most need and often represent children or people with diminished capacity. They ensure that the most vulnerable immigrants receive a fair trial and have a zealous advocate with them throughout the proceedings.

At the federal level, Representative Pramila Jayapal recently reintroduced the Access to Counsel Act. The Act would ensure that anyone with legal status can consult with an attorney, relative, or another interested party if they are detained by Customs and Border Protection for more than an hour at any port of entry. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has endorsed the Act.

The Colorado and proposed federal Acts exist to solve similar problems–immigrants with or without status are at an enormous disadvantage when they face immigration proceedings without an attorney. Legal representation is essential to protect their rights.