Where You Live Impacts Ability To Obtain Representation in Immigration Court

If you happen to live in Honolulu, Hawaii then the odds are good that if an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent comes knocking at your door, you will be able to find an attorney to represent you - even an attorney who volunteers on a pro bono basis if you don't have the money to hire one. Likewise, the odds of ending up with representation is particularly high if you live in Manteca, California or in Pontiac. Michigan.

But you won't be so fortunate if you reside in Roma-Los Saenz or Huntsville, Texas, or in Coral Springs-Margate, Florida, or even in Atlanta-Decatur, Georgia. These places rank among the worst in the proportion of their residents who have found an attorney in their proceedings before the Immigration Court.

Table 1. Communities With Pending Immigration Court Cases by Residence of Individual*
States with: Number
1 or more residents 50
10 or more residents 50
100 or more residents 47
1,000 or more residents 39
Counties with:  
1 or more residents 2,507
10 or more residents 1,372
100 or more residents 470
1,000 or more residents 111
Census County Subdivisions with:  
1 or more residents 11,894
10 or more residents 3,158
100 or more residents 766
1,000 or more residents 96
* See TRAC's mapping tool for location and U.S. Census boundaries for each of these geographic areas, along with pending case counts by location.

Indeed, newly obtained case-by-case court records show that depending upon the community in which the immigrant resides, the odds of obtaining representation in Immigration Court deportation proceedings varies widely. In some places in the United States the odds are 1 out of 100 of obtaining representation in cases filed in the last 90 days, and rise to only 20 out of 100 for all pending cases. In other communities your chances rise to over 82 out of a 100 of securing an attorney in recently filed cases, and climb to 98 out of 100 for all pending cases[1].

These and other findings are based upon very current case-by-case court records that were obtained under the Freedom of information Act and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. Information reflects court records as of the end of May 2017. In many respects these new data are unique. For the very first time, the public can determine the number of individuals residing in each state, county, and local community within a county, who now have pending cases before the Immigration Court. See Table 1.

The latest data show that residents in three out of every four counties in the country, and in some 11,894 places within these counties, now have residents with cases before the Immigration Court. And using TRAC's interactive web mapping application, the public also can determine the odds these residents were able to find an attorney to represent them in their court case. This information shows that where you live greatly impacts the ability to secure representation in Immigration Court.

Why Finding Representation is Important

Our Immigration Court system was established by Congress to conduct deportation proceedings and decide "whether foreign-born individuals, who are charged by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with violating immigration law, should be ordered removed from the United States."[2] In these court proceedings over the past five years, roughly half of individuals were ordered deported, and half were not[3].

While the government is always represented by an attorney, this is not true for the immigrant. Unlike in criminal proceedings, the federal government is not required to provide legal counsel to those without the means to hire an attorney.

Attorney availability - and especially those who specialize in immigration matters -- varies widely by location. While many immigration lawyers and law clinics attempt to provide legal assistance on a pro bono basis, their numbers are insufficient to meet the need. Recently a number of cities, including New York City, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., have begun providing some funding to support legal representation for those unable to afford an attorney in these proceedings. New York State recently passed legislation to provide some public funding as well, and legislation is under consideration in other states. However, communities differ whether there are these initiatives or an active pro bono bar or even a sufficient number of attorneys to handle immigration matters. Thus, the practical reality remains that individuals residing in different communities differ greatly in their ability to find an available attorney.

Few dispute the importance of having an attorney to effectively argue one's case. Representation can also lead to a number of efficiencies in the handling of court proceedings. In the first nationwide study of access to counsel in Immigration Court, TRAC Fellows and UCLA Law School scholars, Ingrid Eagly and Steven Schafer, found that only 37 percent of all immigrants (and just 14 percent of detained immigrants) obtained representation. Yet individuals who were represented had five times or greater chances of prevailing. Having representation also improved the court's efficiency in several respects in handling these cases. Earlier TRAC studies focusing on cases involving women with children as well as unaccompanied juveniles also found dramatically different outcomes based upon whether or not they were represented.

Delay in finding an attorney can in itself be deleterious. While individuals can wait for months and indeed years to have their Immigration Court cases heard, a sizable number of cases are resolved rather quickly. Over the last decade close to one million cases were decided within just 90 days of their filing. Despite the court growing backlog, this year in cases filed within the last 90 days, Immigration Court proceedings already have been completed and the case closed in 10,000 cases. And not surprisingly, unrepresented individuals were almost always ordered deported.

How Representation Rates Vary

Three states head the list of those where their residents are most likely to obtain representation: Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Mississippi. These states have relatively small numbers of pending cases, but are located in entirely different regions of the country. Hawaii had the best record on representation for both pending cases filed within the last 90 days, as well as for its entire court backlog of cases. While New Hampshire was second, Mississippi's record was very close to that of New Hampshire's. (Rankings considered both representation in the entire case backlog as well as in just recently filed cases. See Table 2.)

West Virginia, in fourth place, actually had the second highest representation rate for recently filed cases - identical to that of Mississippi. New Mexico also ranked high for representation rates for recent cases, but dropped to the bottom ten states in representation for its entire case backlog. Kansas, South Dakota, and Georgia had the worst composite records for their residents finding representation. Kansas did particularly poorly on residents with recently filed cases. Less than one in five secured representation. Only Wyoming and Delaware had worse records on this indicator. However, these two states moved up in the rankings because of higher representation rates across their entire case backlog.

California with the largest case backlog ranked 11th from the bottom on representation rates. The other two states with the largest court backlogs as well as recently filed cases were Texas, ranked 15th from the bottom on representation rates, and New York which ranked considerably better - just 18th from the top. New York would have ranked higher except for its poor representation rates in cases filed in the past 90 days - only 29.7 percent. California also did particularly poorly on recently filed cases - just one in five (20.0%) had obtained representation.

However, communities within a single state often varied considerably in their representation rates. Table 3 lists the communities with the best, and the worst representation records. (Rankings were limited to places with at least 25 pending cases filed within the past 90 days.) Three states had communities that ranked in the top 25 as well as in the bottom 25 places in the U.S. For example, Ocilla, Georgia made the top 25 list, while 6 other places in Georgia were in the 25 worst places. Kendale Lakes-Tamiami and Macclenny, Florida were in the top 25, while 5 Florida communities were shown in Table 3 as having among the worst records in the country. Texas also had communities that made both lists as best and worst. Indeed, the 25 communities that ranked the highest on the odds of finding an attorney were spread across 17 states.

Similar details for every community in the U.S. are available in TRAC's free new web mapping application.

Table 2. Pending Cases and the Odds of Obtaining Representation by State
State Odds of
Representation (out
of 100)*
Pending Cases
All Filed Within
Last 90 Days
Hawaii 85.8 561 51
New Hampshire 66.2 589 67
Mississippi 64.6 1,655 178
West Virginia 62.6 206 30
Michigan 62.1 3,966 482
Ohio 61.0 6,967 435
Nebraska 60.7 5,067 252
Utah 59.8 2,097 165
Pennsylvania 58.7 7,883 1,101
New Mexico 56.6 1,741 413
Massachusetts 55.4 15,780 668
Rhode Island 55.3 2,647 51
Kentucky 54.5 4,185 201
Illinois 53.8 15,181 865
Nevada 53.7 3,690 643
North Carolina 53.3 6,707 252
Virginia 53.3 31,000 1,018
New York 51.0 84,507 5,932
Colorado 51.0 10,650 725
Arizona 50.8 10,071 1,467
Iowa 50.3 3,398 234
Washington 49.8 10,010 1,081
Minnesota 49.4 4,478 313
Missouri 49.2 2,825 257
Louisiana 49.0 6,059 876
South Carolina 47.8 2,072 89
Wisconsin 47.5 2,767 133
North Dakota 47.3 344 40
New Jersey 46.5 31,014 2,071
District of Columbia 46.2 2,924 54
Tennessee 45.5 7,995 575
Maine 45.3 423 26
Oklahoma 44.8 1,878 169
Texas 44.7 81,064 7,582
Indiana 43.7 7,323 495
Connecticut 43.6 3,968 450
Florida 43.5 41,191 3,957
California 43.5 111,612 10,794
Alabama 43.4 4,255 339
Idaho 42.9 676 34
Arkansas 42.6 1,984 181
Oregon 42.3 3,604 235
Maryland 41.9 23,074 1,248
Wyoming 41.6 277 25
Delaware 41.1 1,905 159
Kansas 40.4 3,226 240
South Dakota 39.9 615 48
Georgia 38.3 16,100 2,584
Vermont ** 85 7
Alaska ** 69 2
Montana ** 39 9
* Combines odds for representation in recent cases (pending cases filed within past 90 days) and representation rates for the entire case backlog.
** Cases too few to meaningfully calculate odds of representation.
Table 3. Communities in U.S. With Best and Worst Odds of Obtaining Representation in Immigration Court
State Community* Odds of
Representation (out
of 100)*
25 Best Communities
Hawaii Honolulu 90.6
California Manteca 77.9
Michigan Pontiac 73.7
New Hampshire Dover 71.1
Georgia Ocilla 70.1
Pennsylvania Berks County-Reading 68.5
Michigan Detroit 67.8
Texas Mission 65.6
Florida Kendale Lakes-Tamiami 65.3
Massachusetts Everett 64.4
Virginia Woodbridge 63.5
Massachusetts Dartmouth 62.5
Pennsylvania York County-York 61.1
Florida Macclenny 61.0
Pennsylvania Springettsbury 60.8
New Mexico Southeast Otero 60.6
Pennsylvania York County-Windsor 60.6
Texas East Cameron 60.4
Virginia Arlington 60.3
Nebraska Douglas County-Omaha 60.2
Utah Salt Lake City 58.8
Minnesota Minneapolis 58.8
Louisiana Evangeline Parish-District 4 58.5
Ohio Franklin County-Columbus 58.4
Rhode Island Providence 58.1
25 Worst Communities
New Jersey North Bergen 34.3
Kansas Kansas City 34.2
Georgia Savannah 33.8
Arkansas Big Rock 33.7
Alabama Albertville-Boaz 33.6
Florida Fort Myers 33.6
New York New Rochelle 33.4
Texas Alvarado 33.4
Florida Fort Lauderdale 33.3
New Jersey West New York 33.1
New York Greenburgh 32.6
Delaware Georgetown 32.3
Georgia Mableton 32.3
Florida Plantation 32.3
Texas Northeast Dallas 29.9
Texas Rio Grande City 29.8
Florida Boynton Beach-Delray Beach 29.7
Florida Coral Springs-Margate 29.0
Georgia Folkston 27.7
Georgia Atlanta-Decatur 27.2
Arizona Florence 26.1
Georgia Tucker 25.5
Georgia Chamblee-Doraville 25.2
Texas Huntsville 15.9
Texas Roma-Los Saenz 10.7
* U.S. Census defined "county subdivisions" within that state; only communities with at least 25 pending recently filed cases are included in the rankings. For comparable representation rates for all communities, go to this TRAC web tool.
** Combines odds for representation in recent cases (pending cases filed within past 90 days) and representation rates for the entire case backlog.


[1] Representation rates for all pending cases are higher than rates for recently filed cases. It may, of course, take longer than 90 days to secure representation. However, it is also true that rates for the entire backlog are artificially inflated. Many cases for unrepresented persons that started at the same time as those in the court's backlog have already been closed and are no longer included in the backlog. Since fewer issues are raised that need to be resolved by those who lack representation, these cases take less time to complete. The more backlogged the court's calendar, the more the ratio between represented and unrepresented cases shift because of the extended time it takes for the court to schedule one or more additional hearings to resolve each represented individual's case. Thus, while the representation rate for the entire court backlog is currently 65.1 percent, the actual representation rate when all closed cases initiated in the last five years (FY 2012 - FY 2016) are included is much lower - just 45.7 percent.

[2] https://www.justice.gov/eoir/eoir-at-a-glance

[3] http://trac.syr.edu/phptools/immigration/court_backlog/deport_outcome_charge.php

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.