|(12 May 2023)
The availability of pro bono legal representation has grown for noncitizens with cases before the Immigration Court. It is, in part, a remarkable story of the increase of volunteer efforts across this country given the importance of legal representation to immigration outcomes. But despite this growth, volunteer efforts have not been able to meet the needs of immigrants as the number and pace of Court hearings accelerate.
Documenting these trends is now possible for the first time with newly released case-by-case court records obtained by TRAC that show pro bono representation through the years. Individuals appearing before the Immigration Court have a right to obtain their own attorney, but unlike in the criminal legal system, if they do not have the resources to hire one, the government does not provide them with an attorney. According to Immigration Court records, in 2000, just 55 court cases were recorded as completed with pro bono representation. Ten years later, in 2010, the percent of noncitizens securing pro bono assistance remained a minuscule fraction of around 5 out of every 10,000 cases.
Then, beginning in 2012, a wave of unaccompanied children seeking sanctuary began arriving along the U.S.-Mexico border. The image of young children appearing alone in this adversarial court forum and being asked to defend themselves without an attorney has galvanized widespread public concern.
Organized efforts by immigrant rights groups, attorney associations, NGOs and local communities to provide pro bono representation for these children, as well as for young mothers arriving with children seeking asylum, picked up steam. By 2015, completed pro bono represented cases had jumped to 1,894 and one year later in 2016 it was over twice that (3,859). It doubled again by 2019 reaching 8,054 cases completed with the help of pro bono attorneys.
The push under the Biden administration to grow the capacity of the Immigration Court to get its backlog under control, has increased the number and speed with which cases are being heard. The odds of someone finding pro bono help with their case has plummeted as a result. From its peak of nearly 5 percent in FY 2021, in less than 20 months the odds of finding a volunteer attorney has fallen by more than half.
For those ordered removed, the figures are even more stark. As of the end of April 2023, over three out of four of these individuals had no representation, and just 0.8% — that is only 8 out of 1,000 — had been able to find a volunteer attorney to represent them when they did not have funds to hire one. Without the help of a skilled immigration attorney, fewer immigrants are able to prepare asylum applications or other materials required to get their claims even heard.
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