Illegal Aid: Legal Assistance to Immigrants in the United States

56 Pages Posted: 12 Aug 2011 Last revised: 28 Dec 2011

See all articles by Geoffrey Heeren

Geoffrey Heeren

University of Idaho College of Law

Date Written: August 12, 2011


There is an enormous unmet need for immigrant legal aid in the United States. This is partly due to regulations that bar federally-funded legal services organizations from representing many types of immigrants. The possible repeal of these restrictions is rarely discussed as a means to expand immigrant access to counsel. Federal funding for immigrant legal aid appears to have become taboo, despite the fact that for much of its history, legal aid was deeply connected to immigration. This forgotten history reveals that there was once a broad national consensus in favor of immigrant legal aid; it became contentious and faced restriction only after legal aid lawyers began representing “illegal aliens” during the War on Poverty. Congress reacted to legal aid lawyers’ bringing high profile civil rights litigation on behalf of undocumented immigrants by enacting a restriction scheme that authorized representation only of those immigrants that Congress deemed permanent. This article contends that as a constitutional matter government should not be in the business of carving out castes of persons entitled to fewer civil rights than others. The denial of legal aid to certain immigrants conflicts with a Jeffersonian view of democracy and with the principle of anti-subordination at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment. Civil legal aid may not, at this point in time, be an absolute right, but it does represent an important way for indigent and powerless minorities to have their grievances heard. The article concludes that there is no substantial justification for discriminating against immigrants as to this basic democratic safeguard.

Keywords: immigration, immigrant, legal services, legal aid, legal assistance, access to counsel, poverty law, war on poverty, civil rights

Suggested Citation

Heeren, Geoffrey, Illegal Aid: Legal Assistance to Immigrants in the United States (August 12, 2011). Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2011, Available at SSRN:

Geoffrey Heeren (Contact Author)

University of Idaho College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 442321
Moscow, ID 83844-2321
United States

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