Alejandra Cano thought she was not running any risk.
She had been sober for five years, after decades of battling drug addiction. He had had several police problems when he was using, mostly from shoplifting. But that was his previous life.
Now 46-year-old Cano was a single mother living and working in a comfortable apartment on Chicago’s West Side with her two teenage sons. He had not seen his father or his homeland for almost 20 years and decided to travel to Chile in August 2019.
“I had my green card,” the green card for permanent residence, he pointed out. “I had no reason to worry.”
He was wrong. Upon returning from Chile, Customs and Border Protection agents from O’Hare International Airport detained her. They had seen his background on the computer and after waiting for hours, they took out his green card. The government wanted to revoke her residence permit and deport her.
Cano is one of thousands of people – including undocumented immigrants, visa holders and residents – who go through deportation proceedings every year in Chicago, according to federal immigration court data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The arrests draw the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as do certain convictions.
Non-citizens can end up being deported in what are known as “collateral effects”, something similar to the loss of the right to vote and other civil penalties applied when someone is convicted of wrongdoing.
The Cook County Public Defender’s Office estimates that its staff represents hundreds of non-citizens charged with a crime, all of whom can suffer “collateral effects.”
A new unit of the public defender dedicated to immigrants tries to avoid these deportations for some past infraction. She works with public defenders, prosecutors, and community organizations, and tries to make sure immigrants are aware of the consequences they can have if they negotiate a settlement with prosecutors.
That was always a requirement in Illinois, but Cano says his public defender never informed him – something that happens all too often, according to several Cook County immigration attorneys who spoke to Injustice Watch and Borderless Magazine.
Three of the five crimes Cano pleaded guilty to between 2005 and 2013 were shoplifting. This can be punished with deportation.
Had he known, Cano said he would have thought twice before getting on the plane. “At least I would have hired an immigration attorney to help me see what the situation was.”
Immigration issues figure prominently in Cook County courthouses, where one in five residents was born abroad. Many of those residents live in the Chicago metropolitan area, where some 480,000 aliens with residence permits and some 460,000 undocumented reside, according to a recent study published by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
It is unclear how many non-U.S. Aliens face criminal charges in Cook County as the courts do not take note of the defendants’ immigration status. An internal study conducted last year by Cook’s public defenders found that Cook defended about 700 foreigners from more than 80 countries last year.
“The immigration status of all these people faces consequences from these crimes,” said County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell Jr.
When it comes to what kinds of crimes can lead to deportation, immigration laws are precise and vague at the same time. Deportable offenses generally fall into two categories: aggravated felony offenses – such as drug dealing, making false tax returns, or not showing up for a court date – and offenses involving some immorality.
This last category is fuzzy. The Justice Department itself said that “it is difficult to define precisely” these crimes. The category encompasses murder and other acts of violence, as well as nonviolent crimes, such as embezzlement, fraud, forgery, and theft. In the absence of a clear definition, the courts can use their discretion depending on the case.
To further complicate matters, alternative sentences – such as parole, restitution, community services, and rehabilitation treatment – that are frequently used to settle with prosecutors, can also lead to deportation.
Therefore, it is not easy to determine in advance what the “collateral effects” in these immigration cases may be.
While attorneys are required by law to inform a client if an out-of-court settlement carries the risk of deportation, numerous Chicago immigration attorneys told Injustice Watch and Borderless Magazine that, in practice, there are loopholes in the system that deprive immigrants from the protection of “collateral effects”.
Kate Ramos, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago nonprofit organization, represents Cano in the fight to avoid deportation. The Chilean is not the only client who risks being deported after having reached an agreement with the prosecution, according to Ramos: “Many of our clients tell us that they were not aware of the consequences.”
The presence of an immigration unit in the public defender’s office can be important, according to Ramos. “Public defenders are not immigration attorneys,” he said. “They seek the best for their clients from a criminal perspective, so it is important to have an office that pays attention to both”, criminal consequences and immigration.
Before the immigration unit became operational, public defenders consulted with immigration attorneys on a case-by-case basis.
But Angela Kilpatrick, director of public defense for the Bridgeview Courthouse in Cook County, said it is sometimes not easy to balance a client’s immediate needs – such as an admission of guilt to regain freedom, for example. and the possible impact on your immigration status in the future.
Having an immigration attorney at the same ombudsman helps a lot, according to Kilpatrick.
Leading the unit is attorney Hena Mansori, with extensive experience in the field of immigration and who worked for more than a decade at the National Center for Immigrant Justice. Since January he has been training dozens of public defenders via Zoom and creating a new system to identify cases in which public defenders defend foreigners. The system will be protected by attorney-client privileges, so immigrants won’t have to worry about getting ICE on their heels.
The immigration unit is currently single-member, but plans to hire two immigration attorneys and another person to assist Mansori this year, according to Mansori.
One lawyer for every immigrant
While the Sixth Amendment to the constitution guarantees the right to an attorney, immigration courts do not recognize that right. Last year, 66% of immigrants undergoing deportation proceedings did not have one, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. In Chicago immigration courts, that figure is close to 70%.
When immigrants in danger of being deported have a lawyer, they are ten times more likely to win their cases, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice.