Indian-American lawmakers lead drive to help detainees access legal counsel

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California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at the Center for American Progress' 2014 Making Progress Policy Conference in Washington November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at the Center for American Progress’ 2014 Making Progress Policy Conference in Washington November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Indian-American Senator Kamala D. Harris, D-California, a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, introduced her first piece of legislation Feb. 9, the Access to Counsel Act, that would guarantee those detained while attempting to enter the United States, access to legal counsel. It is doubtful this bill would be passed in a Republican-majority Senate. She was joined in the House of Representatives by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, who introduced companion legislation.

Harris said the reports of refugees, Green Card holders, and even U.S. citizens—many of whom women, elderly, or children— held for long periods of time, and denied access to volunteer lawyers, spurred her to introduce her first piece of legislation since she took office early january.

Despite temporary restraining orders against holding Legal Permanent Residents, accounts of protracted holding at ports of entry still came in, even after the reversal in the agencies’ policies, Harris said.

The first Indian-American Senator in the history of the country, Harris was joined by several other Democratic Senators as co-sponsors. The Access to Counsel Act has received support from nearly 40 leading organizations from the international, faith, Asian, Latino, Muslim, Jewish, and immigrant rights communities such as Amnesty International USA, Bet Tzedek, Church World Services, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Kids in Need of Defense, National Council of La Raza, National Immigrant Justice Center, South Asian Americans Leading Together, the Coaltion for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles, J Street, and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Calling it a “fundamental right,” to have counsel, Harris said, “Detention without access to representation goes against the basic values of our judicial system.”

Pramila Jayapal
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington

“Refugees, immigrants, students, and tourists all deserve to be able to access their lawyer in legal proceedings that could change the course of their lives, whether they enter the country at an airport or come across the border,” said Harris, adding, “Interactions with immigration enforcement officials are often confusing and disorienting and no one should be exploited because of their lack of knowledge of our legal system.”

Rep. Jayapal’s companion legislation was co-signed in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. John Conyers, D-Michigan, Zoe Lofgren, D-California, Jerrold Nadler, D- New York,  Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, Judy Chu, D-Ca., Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York, Eric Swalwell, D-Cal., Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Cal., and Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-New Mexico.

 

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