PORTLAND, Ore. — One day five years ago, Alexander decided he’d had enough. Fed up with the culture of extortion in his home country of Honduras, Alexander stopped bribing the gang members who accosted him on his way to pay workers at his father’s small ranch.
The police told Alexander to change his phone number, and he did, but within days, the gangs had his new number — and issued new ultimatums. They vowed to kill him if he didn’t pay up, a realistic threat in a violent country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. (Alexander is his middle name, used for his safety.)
Alexander fled for Texas, where after three days of detention in the Houston airport, he applied for asylum in the United States. But the same Honduran gangs had a presence in Houston and, reportedly, a list of names and photos of people who had fled north. Once again, Alexander feared for his life, and two years ago, he left Texas for Oregon, where he works as a house painter.
“This is my home,” Alexander said. “I feel more safe here.”
Now, Alexander is represented by Equity Corps of Oregon, the state’s new legal defense effort that uses technology to pair immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees with help in immigration court, no matter their ability to pay.
In October, Equity Corps began a two-year, $2 million state-funded project using staff lawyers from six existing legal service nonprofits. Those lawyers are paid by their parent nonprofits, aided in part by grants from the city of Portland, Multnomah County and the state of Oregon.
Although other cities, counties and even states have similar programs, including New York, the Equity Corps program in Oregon is considered the first statewide universal representation program in the nation to use technology to connect poor immigrants to legal aid.
Alexander’s lawyer, Amy Adams, helped him get a work permit and will represent him at his final immigration hearing next year. Adams was assigned to Equity Corps as part of her job as a staff attorney at the SOAR Immigration Legal Services program at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.
“The vast majority of my clients are asylum-seekers from Central America,” Adams said. “They were threatened by a gang or — many of my clients are rape victims — or have had some horrific thing happen to them in their home country. Which makes them afraid to be there, afraid that they might be killed if they’re there.”
Equity Corps emerged in 2018 out of research by a coalition of immigration advocates in Oregon angered by the Trump administration’s policies and the effects of family separation, deportation and detention on the state’s families, businesses and schools.
They had a broad mandate for their work: That same year, Oregon voters thwarted attempts by an anti-immigration group trying to repeal a 1987 law that prohibits the use of state resources to apprehend people for immigration violations. The measure upholding the state’s sanctuary law passed with 63% of the vote.
The immigration coalition successfully pushed for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, to budget $2 million to expand Equity Corps statewide. Brown’s budget also set aside money to sue the Trump administration over other immigration matters, including the president’s efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the U.S. Census Bureau's inclusion of a citizenship question in the 2020 census.
A spokesman for Brown said the governor believes the state has “an obligation to defend Oregon families threatened by the federal government.”
“In Oregon, we welcome all those who want to call this state home,” Brown said in a statement provided to Stateline. “Too often, immigrant families who cannot afford a lawyer have been left to fend for themselves in legal proceedings. This program is a step towards leveling the playing field, so that they can at least have a fair day in court.”
Jim Ludwick, a spokesman for Oregonians for Immigration Reform, the group behind the unsuccessful effort to repeal the state’s sanctuary law, was unfamiliar with Equity Corps. However, his organization generally opposes such programs.
“We do not support a state or a county overriding federal immigration laws,” Ludwick said. “We’re opposed to people coming into the country without authorization and applying for citizenship or any special favors.”
Oregon’s Equity Corps is built on the concept of universal representation — the idea that everyone who faces deportation should have a lawyer to defend them. Because immigration proceedings are civil matters, people facing deportation who cannot afford a lawyer are not guaranteed the same right to an attorney as criminal defendants. Research shows that in immigration court, people with legal representation are at least five-and-a-half times more likely to avoid deportation.
Universal representation programs have the most support in places like Oregon with existing sanctuary policies. They can be controversial because they often represent people who are in deportation procedures for criminal offenses, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.
“It’s attention going to people who are in the country illegally and trying to thwart deportation procedures when you have to ask yourself, ‘Should this really be the highest priority for use of those funds?’” Vaughan said. “Does this mean that all other kinds of programs for Americans and civil proceedings are already fully funded and fully organized? Like for example, guardian ad litem programs for kids in contentious family court hearings or people fighting foreclosure? I just wonder if there are other needs that might be more pressing that should be a higher priority than this kind of work.”
Initially, Equity Corps was a pro bono legal program for poor immigrants with connections to Portland and Multnomah County, the state’s most populous city and county. Its statewide expansion means that poor immigrants in Washington County, a fast-growing Portland suburb where 17% of residents are foreign-born, also will have access to free legal help.
So will people in rural parts of Oregon, where access to an attorney is even more challenging. Portland has the only immigration court in the state, and finding an immigration lawyer can be not only costly but also challenging for people in rural communities far from federal immigration courts.
“It’s a due process issue,” said Ramon Valdez, director of strategic initiatives at the Innovation Law Lab, the Portland-based nonprofit that developed the software used by Equity Corps and similar legal nonprofits. “It’s life or death for a lot of these people, for these members of our community. Just because they can’t have access to counsel, they get deported and they’re separated from their families. We lose employees, we lose students, we lose members of our churches, of our community.”
Equity Corps is powered by two engines: case management software and a system of 155 trained navigators who help identify eligible cases. It's those trained navigators — non-lawyers at social service agencies, churches and community organizations across the state — who learn how to interview people facing deportation.
After navigators conduct an intake interview, Equity Corps can assign people to available lawyers using the software developed by Innovation Law Lab. Because the case management software stores all the relevant case details and supporting paperwork from the intake interview, Equity Corps lawyers can step in at any time and understand the progress of the case. They can all collectively work on case strategy, too.
One drawback to the Equity Corps system: It means that clients must represent themselves in court in the early, administrative stages of their cases, including status hearings. Asylum-seekers and immigrants are encouraged to attend monthly navigation workshops to help them file paperwork and to understand how their case will progress. As cases approach a conclusion, people work one-on-one with the same lawyer, who also represents them at a final merits hearing.
Another hurdle: Equity Corps can’t represent poor Oregonians who are held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention outside the state. In Oregon, most detainees are taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, which is a two-hour drive from Portland.
Equity Corps has the tacit approval of Oregon’s immigration judges, who reportedly print out for asylum-seekers the page on the legal aid group’s website that includes the names of navigators and agencies that can help. A spokeswoman for ICE referred questions to the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the Department of Justice agency that oversees immigration courts. The agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Equity Corps has six lawyers who work at local nonprofits with experience defending removal cases. Each lawyer can handle 20 to 25 clients at once. But the technology gives Equity Corps the capacity to help many more clients quickly by adding lawyers; two others will join the team by April.
The state is closely tracking outcomes. In its first year before statewide expansion, Equity Corps represented 511 people involved in 299 removal cases in front of immigration judges in Portland. Of those, 41 were unaccompanied minors.
And since the start of Equity Corps, navigators submitted 464 entries. Of those, 85% were accepted into the program.
Because Equity Corps is new, and because immigration proceedings can take many years to resolve, its lawyers try to celebrate incremental or procedural victories. It’s why Adams has a Wonder Woman coffee cup on her desk: The mug serves as a reminder to savor the small steps forward for her clients, such as helping them obtain a work permit or successfully pushing back their court dates so they have time to assemble the documents and other evidence they need to make a case to stay in the country.
One of Adams’ greatest recent victories was getting a doctor’s note to postpone a court date by six weeks for a rape victim from Guatemala who had just given birth.
“One of the things that I love about this job is being able to literally hold people’s hand and say, ‘You know, this is what’s going to happen, and these are your rights,’” Adams said. “I feel like that’s really empowering for them, that they now know what’s going to happen.”
That reassurance is a lifeline for immigrants like Alexander, who as an asylum-seeker with a pending case cannot return to Honduras — even if it were safe for him to do so. He hasn’t seen his family in five years.
“When my dad died of cancer, it was really hard for me,” Alexander said. “I wanted to be there with him. I asked God, ‘Why?’”
For Alexander, life in the United States has been difficult and lonely, far from his family and his relatively affluent life in Honduras. When he first arrived in Houston, he slept on the street for two nights. When he moved to Oregon, he had to collect cans from recycling bins for the bottle deposit money. His mother cried when he told her over the phone.
“It’s my new life,” Alexander said. “I have to start from scratch.”
If Alexander’s asylum case is successful, he hopes to invite his mother to the United States: “I want to see my mother again,” he said.