A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court

By: Ingrid V. Eagly and Steven Shafer. Published by: University of Pennsylvania Law Review. Published in December 2015

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Recently, support has increased for a public defender system for immigrants facing deportation. These immigrants have a right to counsel, but courts have no obligation to provide it. Ingrid V. Eagly and Steven Shafer conducted research involving 1.2 million immigration cases between 2007 and 2012, seeking support for claims that such a system might improve both the fate of immigrants in deportation cases and the efficiency of immigration courts.

While the authors emphasize that their findings show correlation, not causation, their descriptive study is very revealing about the current state of representation in deportation cases and the possible benefits of increasing the role of legal aid in these cases. The authors found that only 37% of immigrants (14% of detained immigrants) obtained counsel during this period of study cases. Furthermore, only 2% secured counsel from nonprofit organizations, law school clinics, or large law firm volunteer programs, even though there is a belief that these services are growing capacity to represent more clients. Access to counsel is particularly rare in small, rural areas; some cities with immigration courts do not even have an immigration attorney. However, such geographic areas accounted for where a third of the deportation cases between 2007 and 2012 were held.

The authors find that legal representation is associated with much more positive outcomes, both for the immigrants and for the courts. Immigrants were fifteen times more likely to seek relief and five and a half times more likely to obtain it with representation. Moreover, representation appears to make immigration courts more efficient: represented clients bring fewer unmeritorious claims to court, are more likely to be released from detention (relieving the financial burden of their housing costs), and are more likely to appear for future court dates.

Though the authors do not claim that these positive outcomes are caused by attorneys, they do provide data to back up claims that a public defender system for immigrants facing deportation may be efficacious for all parties.

Categories: Immigration, Legal Aid Attorneys, Legal Aid Practitioners, Limited English Proficiency (LEP), Migrants/Immigrants, National, Policymakers and Funders, Pro Bono, Researchers and Academics

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