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Jayapal’s Access to Counsel Act Passes House of Representatives

Legislation ensures that citizens, green card holders, and other individuals with legal status are able to consult with an attorney if they are detained by Customs and Border Protection

WASHINGTON — U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) successfully passed her Access to Counsel Act in the House of Representatives today. The legislation ensures that U.S. citizens, green card holders, and other individuals with legal status are able to consult with an attorney, relative, or other interested party to seek assistance if they are detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for more than an hour at ports of entry, including airports. This proposal was the very first bill that Representative Jayapal introduced when she came to Congress in 2017.

“The urgent need for my Access to Counsel Act was on full display during four cruel years of a xenophobic Trump Administration carelessly stripping basic civil rights and civil liberties away from individuals solely because of the color of their skin, their religion, the language they speak, or their country of origin,” said Congresswoman Jayapal. “I am proud that the House passed my legislation today as we continue the work necessary to ensure that Trump’s policies of maximum harm are never again inflicted on immigrants, reverse the damage done, and build a humane immigration system.”

The Access to Counsel Act was originally introduced in 2017 as a direct response to Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban, which unleashed chaos at airports across the country as people from seven Muslim-majority countries were detained for hours without food or water before being deported. Some individuals were pressured to sign papers giving up their legal status. In many cases, these individuals had no opportunity to see an attorney or even call anyone for legal guidance. Since then, there have been numerous instances of individuals being denied access to legal counsel while detained for long periods before being sent back despite holding valid visas.

The urgent need for this legislation once again became clear at the beginning of 2020 when at least 200 people of Iranian descent were detained at the northern border in Blaine, Wash. for up to 12 hours with no access to counsel. These lengthy detentions occurred while CBP repeatedly and falsely denied that Iranian Americans were being targeted. Many of the people impacted were U.S. citizens as well as elderly people and children. Some had even undergone extra vetting to participate in a program for trusted travelers. A month later, CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan admitted that border officials had gotten “a little overzealous” in their actions. 

The legislation has been endorsed by leading immigration and civil rights groups including OneAmerica and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. It’s also supported by America’s Voice, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, Church World Service, Community Change Action, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Families Belong Together, HIAS, Human Rights Watch, Immigration Equality Action Fund, Kids in Need of Defense, Muslim Advocates, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Iranian American Council Action. National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, National Partnership for New Americans, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, United We Dream, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Brooklyn Defender Services, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) and Entre Hermanos.

The Access to Counsel Act will:

  • Require the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that people with valid travel documents who present themselves at the border, airports, or other points of interaction can communicate with counsel and other interested parties if they are subjected to prolonged inspection by CBP. 
  • Allow counsel or a covered interested party the ability to advocate on behalf of the individual by providing information or documentation in support of the individual.
  • 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.