Most Immigrants Facing Deportation Never Have a Lawyer

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A recent study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review found that a very small minority of immigrants in deportation (removal) proceedings were represented by an attorney. Most Americans are unaware that immigrants in detention and facing deportation are not entitled to a “public defender” and either have to pay for their own lawyer or be their own lawyer in court.  This report is the first national study of access to counsel in immigration courts.

According to the authors:


court-representationDrawing on data from over 1.2 million deportation cases decided between 2007 and 2012, we find that only 37% of all immigrants, and a mere 14% of detained immigrants, secured representation. Only 2% of immigrants obtained pro bono representation from nonprofit organizations, law school clinics, or large law firm volunteer programs. Barriers to representation were particularly severe in immigration courts located in rural areas and small cities, where almost one-third of detained cases were adjudicated. Moreover, we find that immigrants with attorneys fared far better: among similarly situated removal respondents, the odds were fifteen times greater that immigrants with representation, as compared to those without, sought relief, and five-and-a-half times greater that they obtained relief from removal. In addition, we show that involvement of counsel was associated with certain gains in court efficiency: represented respondents brought fewer unmeritorious claims, were more likely to be released from custody, and, once released, were more likely to appear at their future deportation hearings. This research provides an essential data-driven understanding of immigration representation that should inform discussions of expanding access to counsel.

The report notes that “Our research…counters the standard narrative that the supply of counsel is increasing as a result of expanded pro bono legal services.” It found that 90% of those immigrants who had an attorney had paid a solo practitioner or lawyer from a small firm to do the work. It also found that the work the lawyers performed often did not cover the entire course of the case; “only 45% of immigrants we count as ‘represented’ had an attorney appear at all of their court hearings.”


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