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In the American criminal justice system, you have the right to an attorney. And if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Well, that's not true of U.S. immigration court. Immigration proceedings are civil not criminal matters so immigrant detainees don't have a constitutional right to court-appointed attorneys. Now a pilot program in New York City is trying to fill the gap. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on the nation's first government-funded public defender service for immigrants facing deportation.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Attorneys at the Bronx Defenders leave nothing to chance as they prepare for immigration court. After double-checking files and running through courtroom scenarios, there's one thing attorney Conor Gleason won't know for sure until just hours before he's in front of a judge: whom exactly he'll have to represent next in immigration court.

CONOR GLEASON: We are used to meeting our clients long before our first hearing before a judge and having contact with their families and, like, knowing a little bit about their life. And now we're requesting people to trust us within five seconds of meeting us.

WANG: These quick matches are made through the New York Immigrant Family Unit project, the new pilot program that provides poor immigrant detainees with court-appointed attorneys from the Bronx Defenders and Brooklyn Defenders Services. Gleason says having a public defender can have huge implications on the fate of these.

GLEASON: I mean the individuals are in orange jumpsuits. They have the name of the facility on the back of their jumpsuits. Their hands are chained to their waist, and they're only unchained one - their writing hand, if they need to sign something.

WANG: The half million dollar project funded mainly by the New York City Council will serve 190 detainees. The idea is that public defenders could help some immigrants avoid unnecessary deportations. Organizers say they hope this test run through late February will lead to a model program for other parts of the country. But the project raises questions about immigrant detainees having access to government-funded representation, says Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies. There are a few exceptions under federal law but for the most part...

JESSICA VAUGHAN: American citizens are not entitled to this kind of taxpayer-funded representation when they're in civil courts, for example in bankruptcy proceedings or divorce court or other kinds of civil court actions.

DANA LEIGH MARKS: This pilot program is a wonderful idea. It is long overdue.

WANG: Dana Leigh Marks is president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. After serving on the San Francisco immigration court for more than two decades, she says the more lawyers the better.

MARKS: I know, hard to believe. It's helpful to have lawyers involved in the process because this is such a complicated area of the law. It's just that simple.

WANG: Marks says the federal court system is already overburdened with a large backlog of immigration cases. Part of the reason, she says, is a ripple effect of unrepresented or misguided appeals.

MARKS: We are not where the case ends. People then can appeal it to the Board of Immigration Appeals, to the Circuit Court of Appeals, and even ultimately sometimes go to the United States Supreme Court.

WANG: New York's Varick Street Immigration Court has been the laboratory for the public defender program. Jose Antonio Rico is one of the first test cases taken on by Brooklyn Defender Services.

BRUNILDA FONTANILLAS: My name is Brunilda Fontanillas.

WANG: Rico's mother, Brunilda Fontanillas, says she and her son couldn't afford a private attorney. He was detained in October after an earlier landlord-tenant dispute that escalated into an arrest.

FONTANILLAS: (Foreign language spoken)

WANG: The court helped find my son not only a lawyer but an angel, she says. Rico's attorney says that as a lawful permanent resident who has lived in the U.S. for decades, Rico may be eligible to avoid deportation back to the Dominican Republic. In the first month of the pilot program, public defenders represented 41 detainees. So far 17 have accepted orders for deportation. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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