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Ballot initiative would provide free legal service to people facing deportation

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TUCSON (KVOA) - An Arizona non-profit is pushing to establish a public defender type office which would provide legal representation to Pima County residents facing deportation.

Pima County Justice for All is collecting signatures to get its initiative on the 2022 ballot.

"This initiative would establish an office and funds that would represent people that live within Pima County and are facing a deportation proceeding," said Isabel Garcia, an organizer with the group. Garcia is a former Pima County Deputy Public Defender.

"We've seen our communities decimated with people being deported. we see people gone and we don't know what happened and it's all because people face deportation hearings by themselves. They represent themselves without knowing the intricacies of the laws and regulations, opposed by a government official who is a trained lawyer, experienced in the law."

According to Justice for All, in 2019 more than 22,677 people were processed in the Tucson Immigration court. Just over 4628 were able to hire an attorney. More than 18,000 stood for their immigration hearing alone.

Sandra Moreno and her children were some of the lucky ones. Her family faced deportation to Mexico in 2010, after they had been in the United States for eight years.

"I start to call different lawyers, but it was a lot of money. Even the first appointment, at that time, was a lot of money for me," Moreno said. She found an attorney who agreed to represent her family pro-bono. But that's not always an option.

"I've been at it for over 45 trying to help immigrant rights. there aren't enough pro bono attorneys there's not enough foundations to represent the people," Garcia said.

Moreno's son, Eleazar Togawa, just graduated from the University of Arizona and is applying to medical school. He says his life would have been very different if his family hadn't found an attorney.

"We definitely wouldn't be here. There's no doubt in my mind that we would be back in Mexico. We just didn't have the resources back then, we would have been alone in front of the judge and we would be back there," Togawa said.

His sister, Karla Togawa, is an engineering major at UArizona. Moreno said she left Mexico and fought to stay in the U.S. so her children would have more opportunities in life.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants right to counsel, it doesn't apply to civil proceedings.

Ira Mehlman, with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said American taxpayers shouldn't foot the bill for immigration hearings.

"In civil matters this would be putting the interests of people who are in the country illegally ahead of those of American citizens who are not entitled to the same free legal representation when they have to deal with government agencies. So there's no reason for the taxpayers to have to foot the bill," he said.

Justice for All must collect 78,000 signatures by next July to get on the 2022 ballot.

Shelle Jackson

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