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Supreme Court Rules Immigrants With Crappy Lawyers Can Appeal Their Cases

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Immigrants fighting deportation often don't know they had lousy legal help until it's much too late to appeal to reopen their case. But according to immigration lawyers, a ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court should make it easier for immigrants to appeal when a bad lawyer has botched their case. 

In 2010, Noel Reyes Mata, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was put in deportation proceedings the day after he pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife. Mata filed an application with the Board of Immigration Appeals to stall his deportation, saying, among other things, that it would present a hardship to his children. But Mata's lawyers at the time never filed the necessary appeals documents with the court, and Mata's case was ultimately tossed.

According to Houston immigration lawyer Alexandre Afanassiev, who was co-counsel on Mata's appeal to the Supreme Court, Mata didn't find out until months later that his appeal was thrown out because his lawyer screwed up. He hired new lawyers and tried to reopen the case with the BIA, but he'd already blown past the 90-day filing deadline. That's when he turned to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that shoddy lawyering had denied him his legal rights. The Fifth Circuit essentially said they had no jurisdiction over the matter. Mata's case was dead — that is, until SCOTUS took it up this year. 

The case highlights the strange legal gray area within which immigration courts operate, says Afanassiev. Immigration courts don't fall under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, the backbone for all the rights American citizens are afforded when they go to into court. Immigration courts are effectively controlled by the U.S. Department of Justice, and aren't beholden to the same due-process constraints as other courts. For instance, in criminal courts, you're guaranteed a lawyer if you can't afford one; in immigration court, you either scrounge up enough money to hire one, get lucky enough to score a pro-bono attorney, or brave the Byzantine system on your own.

Under the SCOTUS ruling Monday, cases like Mata's – which are, essentially, ineffective assistance of counsel claims for immigration attorneys – should be heard at the federal appeals court level. Whatever happens to Mata – again, an admitted wife-beater – is beside the point, Afanassiev says. The precedent injects a little due process into a court system that's seriously lacking it, he says. 

“Maybe Mr. Mata isn't ultimately going to win” when his case is heard by the Fifth Circuit, as the Supremes ordered Monday, Afanassiev says. “But this will help other people who may be more deserving, because it provides protection to a lot of people who are in the same boat.” 

"It assists aliens, and it keeps those lawyers honest to some extent...knowing the federal courts can come down on you.” 

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