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Senate Bill Proposes Detained Immigrants Be Guaranteed Access To Attorneys

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) introduced a new bill Thursday that, if passed, would give immigrants and refugees who are detained while entering the United States guaranteed access to an attorney.

The bill comes less than two weeks after President Donald Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has since suspended implementation of the executive order, in accordance with a judicial ruling, the travel ban prompted protests at U.S. airports across the country.

During the days when the executive order was being implemented and immigrants were being detained and denied access to the U.S., volunteer lawyers convened at airports to provide counsel to the detainees.

Harris maintains that the need for this legislation stems from reports of detainees being denied access to volunteer lawyers at airports around the country.

The bill doesn't call for the government to fund the access to attorneys, rather it would likely guarantee that immigrants are able to consult their own attorney or a volunteer attorney who is making themselves available to them.

Sen. Harris, California's former attorney general, has been in Washington for just over a month and her first bill, the Access to Counsel Act, is likely to be a controversial one.

In addition to indefinitely suspending U.S. admission of Syrian refugees, Pres. Trump's executive order also banned residents of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria or Yemen from entering the country for 90 days and placed a 120-day ban on all admission of refugees to the United States.

Thursday afternoon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against reinstating the travel ban and the case could now go on to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Zahra Billo, a civil rights attorney and the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' San Francisco Bay Area branch, told CBS San Francisco on Thursday that the Access to Counsel Act would provide much-needed support for detainees, stating:

"It is our hope that the Access to Counsel Act will provide both moral and actual support for individuals who are detained by border agents as they attempt to enter the United States. There are few things more frightening than coming off a long flight, being pulled into secondary screening, and having all communication with family or advocates cut off in the interim."

Billo said those opposing the bill may take the position that people who are at the U.S. border should not be granted basic civil liberties because they are not technically inside the country yet.

In a statement following the introduction of her bill on Thursday, Sen. Harris said, "Detention without access to representation goes against the basic values of our judicial system. Refugees, immigrants, students, and tourists all deserve to be able to access their lawyer in legal proceedings that could change the course of their lives..."

Elizabeth Cohen, an associate professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs told CBS San Francisco, "it is in the government's interest to do everything possible to avoid any appearance that rights violations are being permitted or encouraged."

Guaranteeing detained immigrants' access to an attorney is one way the U.S. government could do just that.

By Hannah Albarazi - Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.

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