They say all you need is a doctor and a lawyer in the family to be on the safe side. That may be true, given that both can save your life. What’s important is that you have these two professionals by your side when you need them most. When it comes to immigration cases, having a lawyer beside you makes all the difference because treading through the infinitely complex system without a competent attorney could seal your fate and end your life as you know it here in the United States. Unfortunately, nearly half of all immigrants in removal proceedings appeared without legal representation in 2011. Immigrants who appear in court as “pro se” representing themselves are largely unaware of the policies that are of best interest to them and often miss the chance to save themselves because of it. Findings are revealing that pro se parties have a limited access toprosecutorial discretion since they do not have access to information explaining how to obtain it or what it even means. Even if they are aware of all the options of relief that are available to them, they may not know the implications of either accepting or waiving an offer of prosecutorial discretion from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Unfortunately, the consequences of not being able to hire or find scarce pro bono attorneys can have devastating consequences for an immigrant in removal proceedings, including being separated from family for decades or forever. Immigration authorities can take a few simple measures to ensure pro se immigrants understand the components of prosecutorial discretion. First, ICE should advise pro se respondents before reviewing their files and explain to them how to submit documentation for agency officials to consider. If ICE declines to offer this avenue, pro se respondents should be told how to appeal their decision to higher agency officials. If they accept their petition for prosecutorial discretion, the agency should explain the consequences of accepting such offer. And to make sure they have absolutely understood, judges should affirmatively confirm this during the hearing. If these small steps were to be implemented to alleviate the fundamental inequities pro se respondents deal with given that the government does not provide free legal representation to immigrants who cannot afford one, it would make a tremendous difference in the fate of countless noncitizens and their families.