Less than half of all immigrants facing deportation proceedings have legal representation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. A study spearheaded by a New York federal judge found that having legal representation is a major factor affecting whether an immigrant accused of violating federal immigration laws is deported. The other major factor is whether an immigrant is held in detention.
The study looked at removal proceedings in local immigration courts from 2005 through 2010. It found that almost 75 percent of individuals with lawyers and who were not in custody were allowed to stay in the country.
At the other extreme, 97 percent of detained immigrants without lawyers were deported.
The study found that the detention policies employed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security "create significant obstacles for immigrants facing removal to obtain counsel."
Most immigrants are transferred to far-off detention centers, the study found, and these immigrants rarely have lawyers.
The study sheds new light on an issue that many lawyers and immigrant rights leaders have signaled as a problem for years. Because immigration law is an area of civil and not criminal law, courts are not required to provide free legal representation. Many individuals who find themselves in immigration court aren't familiar with the U.S. legal system and often can't afford to hire a lawyer, experts say.
“And, there are fewer and fewer legal services programs that represent indigents than ever before,” said Bill Hing, an immigration law expert at the University of San Francisco. "And, of course, the immigration courts now are busier than ever before."
Last year, more than 300,000 proceedings were initiated in the nation’s immigration courts — a 50 percent increase over the last decade, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Hing said immigrants facing deportation face similar obstacles on the West Coast.
Even when immigrants do have lawyers, they may not have very good ones. New York immigration judges surveyed for the study rated 33 percent of the lawyers in their court as “inadequate,” and 14 percent of them as “grossly inadequate."