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Where Do the Candidates Stand on Access to Counsel?


We asked the 2020 presidential candidates where they stood on access to counsel:

  1. Do you support the right to legal counsel for people facing removal, including counsel paid for by the government for those who cannot afford it?
  2. How would you ensure people facing removal receive legal counsel and have meaningful access to their counsel?

Here's where the candidates stand:

Opposes Access to Counsel No Position on Access to Counsel Supports Access to Counsel Supports Government-Funded Counsel
Donald Trump

Donald Trump (R)

Roque De La Fuente

Roque De La Fuente (R)

Mark Sanford

Mark Sanford (R)

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh (R)

William Weld

William Weld (R)

Joe Biden

Joe Biden (D)

Steve Bullock

Steve Bullock (D)

John Delaney

John Delaney (D)

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard (D)

Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick (D)

Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson (D)

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang (D)

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg (D)

Wayne Messam

Wayne Messam (D)

Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer (D)

Michael Bennet

Michael Bennet (D)

Cory Booker

Cory Booker (D)

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg (D)

Julián Castro

Julián Castro (D)

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris (D)

Amy Klobuchar

Amy Klobuchar (D)

Beto O'Rourke

Beto O'Rourke (D)

Tim Ryan

Tim Ryan (D)

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders (D)

Joe Sestak

Joe Sestak (D)

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren (D)


AILA's Position:

While U.S. law guarantees an individual facing removal the right to counsel, U.S. law still does not guarantee legal counsel paid for by the government to those who cannot afford counsel. Having legal counsel is the most decisive factor in determining whether someone will obtain a grant of legal relief. Immigration judges have concluded that cases are resolved more expeditiously when people are represented by counsel. Yet only a small minority of those facing removal are ever represented by an attorney. The federal government should establish a right to legal counsel, paid for by the government when necessary, to all people facing removal. The government should also guarantee legal orientation and education programs to ensure those facing removal understand the legal process. Finally, legal counsel can only be effective if clients are given meaningful access to their counsel in detention facilities, during secondary inspections and visa interviews, and in other settings.

Candidates' Positions

The following candidates support guaranteeing counsel paid for by the government for people facing removal: Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Joe Sestak, and Elizabeth Warren. Michael Bloomberg, Wayne Messam, and Tom Steyer support ensuring access to counsel but have not taken a position on government-funded counsel. The following candidates have no stated position on access to counsel for those in removal proceedings: Republicans Roque De La Fuente, Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh, and Bill Weld; and Democrats Joe Biden, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Deval Patrick, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang. President Trump has not supported access to counsel for those in removal proceedings, and his policies have erected barriers to legal counsel.

Candidates Supporting Government-Funded Counsel for Those in Removal Proceedings:

Michael Bennet (D)

In 2019, Sen. Bennet cosponsored S. 2113, the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, which would provide $55 million in government funding and mandate that DHS provide access to counsel for all detained people in ICE, CBP, or HHS facilities.

Michael Bloomberg (D)

In a 2017 op-ed for his media company, Mr. Bloomberg wrote that “speedier case handling must also make a provision for the adequate legal representation that judges have called for.” During his time as the mayor of New York City, Mr. Bloomberg addressed the challenge of finding legal counsel for immigrants in immigration court by pledging $2 million to provide lawyers and training. However, Mr. Bloomberg has not publicly stated whether or not he supports such a policy at a national level.

Cory Booker (D)

In his response to the AILA Survey, Sen. Booker stated:

As president, I will expand legal counsel for all immigrants, starting with immigrant children. Access to legal counsel remains a challenge: about two-thirds of immigrants face their deportation proceedings without a lawyer. And representation matters. Studies show that immigrants with legal representation are at least twice as likely to gain lawful protection in the United States. Further, when individuals are represented by counsel they are nearly 100% certain to comply with their court dates. Deportation cases can be matters of life and death. The Trump administration tried to end the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) that provided basic information to immigrants in detention about their process and rights. I will use my authority as president to expand access to counsel and the LOP to cover all detention centers and immigration courts and expand access to counsel for immigrants, especially unaccompanied immigrant children.

In 2018, Sen. Booker cosponsored S. 2468, which would have guaranteed counsel at government expense.

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Pete Buttigieg (D)

In his response to the AILA Survey, Mayor Buttigieg stated:

We will urge Congress to pledge funds and to work with legal service providers and state and local governments to create a system to substantiate this guarantee, building off of the success of programs like the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project.

Julián Castro (D)

In his response to the AILA Survey, Mr. Castro stated: “I support publicly-financed legal counsel for individuals facing removal who are unable to afford an attorney.”

Sec. Castro will “increase access to legal assistance for individuals and families presenting asylum claims, ensuring individuals understand their rights and are able to make an informed and accurate request for asylum.” He will also “guarantee counsel for all children in the immigration enforcement system.” Campaign website

Kamala Harris (D)

In 2018, Sen. Harris cosponsored S. 2468, which guaranteed counsel at government expense. In 2019, Sen. Harris cosponsored S. 2113, the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, which would provide $55 million in government funding and mandate that DHS provide access to counsel for all detained people in ICE, CBP, or HHS facilities.

Amy Klobuchar (D)

In 2019, Sen. Klobuchar cosponsored S. 2113, the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, which would provide $55 million in government funding and mandate that DHS provide access to counsel for all detained people in ICE, CBP, or HHS facilities.

Beto O’Rourke (D)

Mr. O’Rourke supports “expanding the Legal Orientation Program (LOP) to ensure that everyone knows how to navigate our immigration system” and “deploying up to 2,000 lawyers to the border and funding a robust right to counsel.” – Campaign website

Tim Ryan (D)

In response to the AILA Survey, Mr. Ryan indicated that he supports the right to legal counsel including counsel paid for by the government. In addition, he wrote: “I would include the right to counsel in removal proceedings as part of an overall immigration reform package.”

Bernie Sanders (D)

In his response to the AILA Survey, Sen. Sanders stated:

Currently, our immigration adjudication system is so broken that immigrants often do not receive notice of their hearings, notices are received in a language the recipients do not speak, and immigrants are sometimes even marked absent for hearings that did not even physically take place. Navigating the immigration system without legal counsel is next to impossible. To ensure that people can actually access their legal counsel, Bernie will adopt community-based alternatives to detention. When Bernie is in the White House, immigrants will have access to counsel, as well as other supportive services as they wait for their hearings.

In 2019, Sen. Sanders cosponsored S. 2113, the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, which would provide $55 million in government funding and mandate that DHS provide access to counsel for all detained people in ICE, CBP, or HHS facilities.

In Sen. Sanders’ immigration platform, he states that he will “ensure justice and due process for immigrants, including the right to counsel and an end to cash bail, create a $14 billion federal grant program for indigent defense, ensure access to translation and interpretation services throughout every stage of the legal process,” and “end the use of video conferencing for immigration cases.”

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Joe Sestak (D)

In response to the AILA Survey, Mr. Sestak stated:

We simply must mandate that all people facing removal receive legal counsel. This will require creating a system akin to the public defender system in our municipal courts. As with any other kinds of prisoners or detainees, people in the immigration justice system must be guaranteed access to their counsel during regular business hours or at reasonably assigned times. This will certainly require additional funding, but I believe it is a fundamental issue of fairness so we must spend what is required. Removal proceedings represent a person’s last chance to stay in this country, and it is inhumane to force them to go before a judge alone, without knowing the law or their rights. There is nothing more American than the concept of ‘justice for all,’ and it should apply to migrants as much as it applies to citizens.

Elizabeth Warren (D)

In response to the AILA Survey, Sen. Warren stated:

My immigration plan calls for creating a national-scale immigration public defender corps, and a Warren administration will provide access to counsel in immigration court.

In 2018, Sen. Warren cosponsored S. 2468, which guaranteed counsel at government expense. In 2019, Sen. Warren cosponsored S. 2113, the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, which would provide $55 million in government funding and mandate that DHS provide access to counsel for all detained people in ICE, CBP, or HHS facilities.

Read More

Candidates Supporting Access to Counsel for Those in Removal Proceedings:

Wayne Messam (D)

Wayne Messamhas supported the creation of legal aid clinics to help those detained at the Homestead Family Detention Facility in his city of Miramar, Florida.

Tom Steyer (D)

On his campaign website, Mr. Steyer ways he “will guarantee the right to legal counsel in immigration proceedings to ensure due process for all.”


Candidates with No Position on Access to Counsel for Those in Removal Proceedings:

The following candidates have no stated position on access to counsel for those in removal proceedings: Republicans Roque De La Fuente, Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh, and Bill Weld; and Democrats Joe Biden, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Deval Patrick, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang.


Candidates Opposing Access to Counsel for Those in Removal Proceedings:

President Trump has not supported access to counsel for those in removal proceedings, and his policies have erected barriers to legal counsel. For example, under the Trump administration, DOJ has attempted to eliminate legal orientation programs for individuals facing removal. In addition, the Remain in Mexico policy has made it difficult for asylum seekers to obtain information about legal service providers and, for those who have counsel, to meet with and have access to their counsel.