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Legislation would give immigrants legal help

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Naperville) introduced legislatithwould give detained immigrants access some legal help. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Naperville) introduced legislation that would give detained immigrants access to some legal help. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 25, 2014 6:41AM

AURORA — Immigrants being held in detention centers and jails would have access to information about their legal rights within five days of being placed in custody under new legislation introduced last week by U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Naperville).

Across the country, only 25 detention centers or jails provide some kind of legal orientation program to assist detained immigrants, Foster said, which is less than 10 percent of all facilities. None are in the Midwest, he said.

“Our current immigration system depends far too much on detention and deportation, at a huge cost to families and to taxpayers,” Foster said at a meeting with reporters Thursday. “One of the biggest problems with the entire detention system is the lack of access to a lawyer or even legal advice.”

Foster said there’s two reasons for other members of Congress to support the measure. The law could potentially save the federal government money by cutting down on court backlogs and detention stays, he said, and at the same time it would remove the “false hope” that propels some immigrants unaware of their legal rights to stay longer in detention centers than necessary.

“I think it would be very hard for any member of Congress to say that ‘I’ve walked away from a proposal that saves money,’” Foster said. “People can accept or not accept the justice argument.”

Under the House legislation, which was posted to Foster’s website, a new federal Office of Legal Access Programs would be created and the U.S. Attorney General would work with other organizations to develop a plan for creating a legal orientation program at every detention center or jail that houses detained immigrants.

The programs would help make sure detained immigrants are given notice of their rights in English and other commonly spoken languages.

Unauthorized immigrants would be told about the basic procedures of immigration hearings and their rights at them, as well as information that could prevent them from filing unnecessary legal claims. The legislation would not give unauthorized immigrants benefits only available to U.S. citizens, such as the right to legal counsel.

This area has a sizable immigrant detainee population, according to Keren Zwick, a lawyer with the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center. Of the 34,000 immigrants detained nationwide on a daily basis, she said, 1,200 are in the Chicago region.

Zwick said Foster’s legislation would save immigration court judges time and ease the concerns of many detained immigrants and their families confused by a complicated legal process.

“They spend weeks in facilities waiting for someone to tell them what to do,” she said. “Instead we could go in and tell them if they should give up seeking relief and accept the removal order or if we could advocate for them.”

The legislation does not have a companion stand-alone bill in the Senate, but there is a similar measure in another, longer bill that would overhaul the nation’s entire immigration system.

Foster said given the gridlock in Congress over immigration, he thought it was helpful to introduce this measure by itself.

“This is a small part of immigration reform,” Foster said. “It’s not a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform.”

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