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[WASHINGTON, DC] – U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), Vice Chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship and Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, today applauded the Committee’s advancement of her Access to Counsel Act of 2020. H.R. 5581. Jayapal’s bill ensures that American citizens or those with legal status in the United States have access to an attorney if they are detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in secondary or deferred inspection for more than one hour. At the Committee’s markup of the bill today, Jayapal delivered remarks that highlighted the recent incident of CBP targeting as many as 200 Iranian Americans for secondary screening—some held for up to 12 hours—at the border crossing in Blaine, Washington. Her remarks are pasted below and video of her remarks is available here.

Jayapal introduced a version of this bill—the first bill she ever introduced as a member of Congress—in February 2017, following implementation of President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban Executive Order. As a result of the Muslim Ban, refugees, immigrants, and Green Card holders—including women, children, and the elderly—were held for long periods of time, in some cases without food or water, and without access to legal counsel to help them understand their rights. Jayapal introduced a new version of the bill in January 2020. U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced a companion bill in the Senate. In the House, the Access to Counsel Act currently has 41 co-sponsors.

The Access to Counsel Act would provide U.S. citizens and those with legal status in the United States who are detained for secondary inspection at the border, airports, or other points of interaction for more than an hour with the ability to call an attorney, family member, or another interested party.  The bill does not create an obligation for the federal government to pay for counsel—it merely provides access to those who are able to get an attorney. The bill would also invalidate any effort by CBP to persuade someone to relinquish their legal status (by executing a I-407 or Record of Abandonment of Lawful Permanent Resident Status) if that person has been denied access to counsel.

Remarks as Prepared for U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal

House Judiciary Committee Markup of H.R. 5581, the Access to Counsel Act of 2020

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I’m proud to be here today to markup H.R. 5581, the Access to Counsel Act. My bill would simply make sure that U.S. citizens, green card holders, and others who have legal status in the United States are able to consult with an attorney when Customs and Border Protection detains them in secondary inspection for more than an hour.

This was the very first bill I introduced as a member of Congress in 2017, in response to President Trump’s Muslim Ban that unleashed total chaos at airports across the country as people from seven Muslim-majority countries suddenly found themselves being deported, and in some cases pressured to sign papers giving up their legal status.

When I rushed to my local airport as soon as I heard what was happening, I found a U.S. citizen woman waiting to welcome her husband who had been put on a plane back without being allowed to see an attorney, despite traveling on a valid visa. In another case, we stopped a plane on the tarmac to stop two people from being sent back.

What we learned after was that CBP detained people in secondary inspection without a phone call, without being able to call an attorney. And CBP wouldn’t tell us a thing about how many people were being detained in real time. I literally had to go across the airport tarmac to CBP’s office to pound on the door to demand answers. Ultimately, it was a court order that helped us secure the release of people being detained across the country.

Most recently, however, we have seen again the enormous problems that exist for people who are detained in secondary inspection without any ability to consult with an attorney.

In January, my office was notified that CBP at the Blaine, Washington Northern Border crossing was detaining up to 200 people of Iranian heritage. The vast majority of these people were U.S. citizens and lawful residents, some who even had expedited passes that already require extensive security screening. These individuals were detained for up to 12 hours in secondary screening without access to attorneys, and simply because of the country in which they were born. 

One of them is Negah Hekmati, a naturalized U.S. citizen and mother of two U.S.-citizen children. Negah told me how she and her family were detained for about six hours, in spite of their Nexus cards that facilitate expedited travel. One of the most heartbreaking things is that her small children begged her not to speak Farsi anymore so that they would not be detained.

As one of only 14 naturalized citizens in the United States Congress, this hits home to me. In 1942, American imposed a second loyalty test on Japanese Americans, interning 123,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry.  It took decades for Congress to apologize. If there is one thing to learn, it is that we cannot impose a second loyalty test on people for the sole reason of their country of birth.

In addition, since August 2019, dozens of Iranian students with valid visas have either had their visas revoked or been deported upon their arrival in the United States, apparently simply because of their country of origin and despite their valid visa status.In one particularly egregious example, an Iranian student was deported from Boston’s Logan airport last month despite a court order for CBP to stop. These situations and others that came up during our September hearing on the Muslim ban make it clear why we need to pass the Access to Counsel Act.

My bill doesn’t ask for these attorneys to be funded by the government or for every single person who arrives at our airports or borders to have access—I am simply asking that we allow people who are U.S. citizens or who have already received legal status in the United States to have the right to make a phone call and consult with an attorney paid for by them or provided by nonprofits if CBP detains them in secondary inspection for more than an hour. This is a commonsense measure that, in fact, is less far-reaching than what I originally introduced, and I hope it will have the backing of every member of this committee.