Skip to main content

Margaret Kopel L’19 represents vulnerable immigrants through program Mayor Kenney’s proposed budget threatens to cut

June 19, 2020

Margaret Kopel L?19 represents clients in immigration detention under the auspices of the Pennsyl...

Margaret Kopel L’19 works as a University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School Postgraduate Fellow at Nationalities Service Center (NSC) in Philadelphia, where she represents clients in immigration detention under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project (PAIFUP), a coalition of non-profit organizations serving immigrants in Pennsylvania.

In response to the shortfall created by the COVID-19 crisis, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed budget would cut funding for PAIFUP. Penn Law’s Office of Communications spoke with Kopel about her fellowship with NSC and why it would be disastrous for her clients if Kenney’s cuts were enacted.

Office of Communications: Why is PAIFUP important?

Margaret Kopel: Unlike in criminal cases, people in immigration proceedings aren’t guaranteed representation by an attorney. This is true even when people are detained by the government, in rural county prisons, hundreds of miles from their families and support networks. At the same time, studies (including one published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review) show that an immigrant’s chance of success increases hugely when they have an attorney. PAIFUP’s goal is to provide universal representation to individuals who are in immigration detention in Pennsylvania, similar to a public defender system.

Through the PAIFUP model, I’ve represented about 25 clients in immigration detention. I screen people for financial eligibility and then select the actual clients randomly and completely merits-blind. Some are people who have lived in the U.S. for decades and are being deported because of criminal charges. Some are people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries and were transferred to Pennsylvania — where they knew absolutely no one — straight from the border. Some have pathways to relief.

I’ve helped people get out of prison on bond, and I’ve represented them in their full immigration cases before the court. Some people have had no options for relief, and so all I’ve been able to do is to explain the system, explain their options, sit next to them while they are ordered deported by a judge, and try to give the person some dignity in an otherwise dehumanizing system.

Office of Communications: What happens to these people if funding for PAIFUP is eliminated?

Kopel: Each of these people would not have had an attorney without PAIFUP. Some of them likely would have lost their cases and would still be detained. Even those who did not win their cases or had no options for relief repeatedly told me how much it meant to have an ally and an advocate with them. Eliminating PAIFUP, which is less than 1% of the city’s budget, would take away the due process, dignity, and fair chance that each person deserves.

Office of Communications: Please describe the work you’re doing as a Fellow at NSC.

Kopel: I designed my Fellowship with NSC with the idea of setting up the structures and systems for universal representation so that if PAIFUP was funded, the program would be ready to go. In 2019, the City of Philadelphia and the Vera Institute of Justice provided funding for PAIFUP as part of the SAFE Network System, and so I was joined by two attorneys and a coordinator in early 2020. Prior to their joining, I worked to create the materials and mechanisms to screen individuals at detention centers and receive referrals from community organizations so that they were ready to hit the ground running when they began.

As described above, I’ve also provided individual representation for clients who are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Pennsylvania. For clients who are eligible for bond, I argue to the judge that they should be released from detention for the rest of their immigration case. For those who aren’t, I represent them through the end of their case — which might mean arguing an asylum case in front of the judge, or filing an appeal, or arguing that the case should be terminated because of legal errors made by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Because of the merits-blind nature of PAIFUP, I’ve represented people in a huge variety of situations, which has been challenging but also incredibly rewarding, and I’m so grateful for the Fellowship that has allowed me to do this work.

Office of Communications: What is a favorite moment from your time there?

Kopel: I represented R, who has lived in Philadelphia for over a decade. He was detained by ICE after dropping his kids off at school and was taken over 100 miles away to the Pike County Prison, where ICE contracts for bedspace. He feared return to his home country because he had served in the military and had been extorted, threatened, and tortured by gangs because of that.

A few days before his scheduled hearing in April, his cellmate tested positive for COVID-19, and R felt feverish and fatigued. We repeatedly asked ICE to release him and were repeatedly denied. We pushed back his case, even though it was so hard for R to be away from his family so that he could recover. Finally, his hearing date came in May, and R did amazingly. We won his case, and he can now leave custody and return to his family. R has been through so much adversity, and it felt great to see his resilience rewarded.

Office of Communications: Aside from the looming budget issue, how has the COVID-19 crisis impacted the lives of your clients?

Kopel: Our clients in the Pike County Correctional Facility live in lockdown; they must stay in their cells 23.5 hours per day and must choose whether to use that 30 minutes to exercise, call their attorney, or shower.

Communication with clients at all detention centers has been extremely difficult and expensive. Our clients must choose whether to move forward with their cases despite not being able to prepare with their attorney in person, or to continue being detained in these extreme conditions. And we attorneys must choose whether to meet with our clients — and risk bringing the coronavirus into prisons already facing outbreaks — or to rely on the phone to interview, advise, and prepare clients.

Many of our clients’ families have been impacted as they are struggling financially without work and because, due to their immigration status, they do not qualify for unemployment benefits or other assistance.

Office of Communications: Were there particular experiences you had at the Law School that prepared you to pursue the work you’re doing today?

Kopel: The Transnational Legal Clinic and the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic taught me everything I know about client advocacy and representation. Professor Sarah Paoletti and Professor Kara Finck have been amazing mentors to me, and I recommend that anyone who is interested in public interest work take their clinics. I also have to give a shout-out to the Refugee Law class with Professor Fernando Chang-Muy and my now-supervisor Jonah Eaton!

Read more about the Law School’s clinical opportunities and postgraduate fellowship program.