When Immigrants Have Lawyers in Court, Taxpayer Dollars Are Saved


This week we are looking at a study from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review that reports on the lack of legal representation for most immigrants facing deportation. The study finds that when an immigrant is represented, the case speeds up dramatically, saving taxpayer money spent on the immigration courts, and the immigrant is much more likely to have a favorable outcome to their cases. According to the study:

With respect to the efficacy of representation, we find that immigrants who are represented by counsel do fare better at every stage of the court process—that is, their cases are more likely to be terminated, they are more likely to seek relief, and they are more likely to obtain the relief they seek. For example, detained immigrants with counsel obtained a successful outcome (i.e., case termination or relief) in 21% of cases, ten-and-a-half times greater than the 2% rate for their pro se counterparts. Success rates were even higher among immigrants represented by nonprofit organizations, large law firms, or law school clinics. Moreover, the relationship between representation and successful cases was statistically significant and persisted when controlling for other variables that could affect case outcomes, including detention status, nationality, prosecutorial charge type, fiscal year of decision, and jurisdiction of the immigration court. Among similarly situated 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. We also document certain court inefficiencies associated with the lack of representation in immigration courts. When immigrants are detained, lengthy judicial processes are costly not just for the courts, but also for detention officials who must pay for the immigrants’ housing costs during the pendency of the case. We find that among detained immigrants who sought counsel, almost 51% of all court adjudication time was incurred due to time requested to find an attorney. Yet the majority of these detained immigrants never found counsel. Additionally, those immigrants who were represented by counsel were more likely than their pro se counterparts to have custody hearings and be released from detention, which further saves detention costs. Also, once released, represented immigrants were considerably more likely to appear in court: only 7% of nondetained represented immigrants were removed in absentia, compared to 68% of pro se nondetained respondents.

The authors of the study do offer this caveat:

While we do show robust, statistically significant correlations between representation and various case outcomes, we do not argue that representation causes the gains that we describe in this Article.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.