Leading Edge Idea: Expanding the role of the public defender in California to ensure representation for immigrants impacted by the criminal justice system

While the U.S. constitution guarantees a right to an attorney to people accused of crimes if they cannot afford to hire one, it gives no such right to immigrants who are facing deportation. That means immigrants end up representing themselves or hiring an attorney at high cost, an undue burden for low-income immigrants. Raha Jorjani, a nationally recognized “crimimmigration” expert, is fighting to change that.

In 2009, Jorjani began advising Alameda County’s public defenders on the immigration consequences of criminal convictions on a part time basis. In 2014, she joined the Office full time to create and implement the Immigration Representation Project, the first such effort in California to provide free legal representation to immigrants in both criminal and immigration courts.

“I find caging human bodies, particularly when we do it to primarily Black and Brown bodies, deeply offensive,” she said. “There are immigrants who end up serving more time in immigration detention on the basis of their criminal convictions than they served for their original criminal conviction. I don’t think they should be treated differently because they’re immigrants. I don’t accept that assumption.”

Born in Iran, Jorjani came to the United States with her family in 1984. After earning her law degree at City University of New York, she worked for two years for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal services for low-income immigrants in Arizona. She spent nearly seven years as a Clinical Professor at the UC Davis School of Law Immigration Law Clinic.

Jorjani always has been passionate about defending people accused of crimes; she went to law school intending to become a prisoner’s rights attorney or a public defender. She became a tireless defender of incarcerated immigrants when she realized that the immigration system locks people up for civil violations.

“Too many kids today have one or both parents incarcerated or deported,” she said. “The idea of transforming the system to minimize incarceration and deportation means you’ll reunite families who will be able to stay together. Ultimately, it means securing healthy communities for all and not just some of us.”

Through her Leading Edge fellowship, Jorjani will ensure due process for immigrants convicted of crimes. This would include effective representation during criminal cases and extending to immigration court if they are placed in deportation proceedings once the criminal case is over.

“Immigrant clients are being punished twice,” she said. “First, they are punished by the criminal justice system, and then they are punished a second time by the immigration system.”

California is home to more than 10 million immigrants, the largest of any state in the country. About seven in 10 immigrants are either naturalized citizens or have legal status, and undocumented residents make up about one-quarter of the state’s total immigrant population.

“It’s appalling that once someone pays the dues society thinks they owe for a particular crime, that person can be repunished for the same crime by being re-detained and deported,” she said. “Many people are afraid to go back to their countries. Deportation for many of our clients can be a death sentence.”

Over the last two years in Alameda County, Jorjani has helped to fundamentally shift how counties and the state treat many immigrants in criminal proceedings. She set a precedent through a California’s Court of Appeals decision that gave juvenile courts the power to make certain immigrated-related decisions, allowing many undocumented kids to gain permanent legal status. In addition, shortly after Jorjani’s hire, San Francisco’s public defender also hired an immigration attorney to provide the same basic services. Since then, three other Bay Area counties have hired part-time or full-time immigration attorneys to counsel their public defenders on immigration consequences.

“This model has shifted the way we look at indigent defense in California,” she said. “This is the just the beginning. I want to bring an immigration attorney to every single public defender’s office in California committed to this need.”