Friday, February 10, 2017

Sen. Kamala Harris' first bill: legal counsel to those detained by Muslim ban

Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) introduces her first bill that would provide legal counsel to those detained by a President Donald Trump's proposed Muslim ban.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS, D-Calif., introduced her first bill on Thursday that would provide legal counsel to those held or detained while trying to enter the U.S, reports USA Today.

The Access to Counsel Act would allow lawyers to provide legal counsel by phone or video if they cannot physically be present. It would also invalidate any documents abandoning legal resident status or applications for admission if detainees have signed them after being denied legal services.

“Detention without access to representation goes against the basic values of our judicial system,” said Sen. Harris, as volunteer lawyers are struggling to gain access to refugees and travelers detained at U.S. airports.

Harris’s Access to Counsel Act is not without congressional support; there are five co-sponsors in the Senate, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., introduced the House companion measure, which has 10 co-sponsors. The measures introduced by Indian American congresswomen Harris and Jaypal have also received support from multiple organizations, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and the National Immigrant Justice Center.

“As the Trump administration is attempting to close it borders to refugees and asylum seekers, prompt access to lawyers for people who come fleeing persecution is a critical safeguard to ensure they receive the protections guaranteed under U.S. and international law,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center.

This is one more battle in a series of fights against President Trump’s executive-order travel ban that blocks entrance into the U.S. for 90 days by any citizens coming from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Syria, or Yemen. The order also blocks green-card holders from these countries from re-entering the U.S. and placed a 120-day ban on refugees, with an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria.

U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order last week halting the ban on immigration and travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations after Washington state and Minnesota sued. 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco unanimously upheld the lower court's ruling Thursday that temporarily blocked further implementation of the Donald Trump's executive order for a Muslim-ban. The appeals court decision will most likely be sent to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Harris' bill has also been met with opposition. “Immigration is a civil matter and people who are challenging denials of admission to the United States have no guarantee of publicly funded representation,” said Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). “Everyone, including Americans who are involved in civil cases of all sorts, must provide their own legal representation, or seek pro bono counsel.”

While Mehlman claims that the bill would introduce additional tax dollars being funneled into services for undocumented immigrants and their families, Harris’s press secretary Tyrone Gayle pointed to the bill’s statement that lawyers would gain access to arrivals “at no expense to the government.”

The Access to Counsel Act of 2017:
  • Affirms that the right to access to counsel attaches at the time of holding or detention;
  • Provides a redress option if counsel cannot personally meet with those detained at the border or ports of entry for the provision of legal advice remotely (e.g., phone or Video Teleconference);
  • Invalidates any effort by immigration enforcement officials to persuade someone to relinquish their legal status (by executing a Record of Abandonment of Lawful Permanent Resident Status or Withdrawal of Application for Admission) if that person has been denied access to counsel;
  • Directs that immigration enforcement officials shall limit detention to the briefest term possible and least restrictive conditions practicable, and will include access to food, water, and restroom facilities.
(Views from the Edge contributed to this report.)