People in immigration detention who are represented by an attorney are more likely to receive a positive outcome in immigration court than those that face judges alone. Unfortunately, people who arrive in the U.S. from other countries are not guaranteed representation even though having one can be the difference between being allowed to stay or being deported.
The state of Pennsylvania—where representation rates for immigrants are particularly low—should work to implement a public defender program for detained immigrants in removal proceedings. This would improve fairness in a state where data from Fiscal Year 2018 shows that of 3,615 detained immigrant or 77% did not have legal representation.
This is the conclusion of a new report, Detained Immigrants and Access to Counsel in Pennsylvania Report (Access to Counsel in PA), issued last week by Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (CIRC). CIRC collaborated closely Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania, Nationalities Services Center, and Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center for the report.
To reach their conclusion, CIRC combines analysis of numerical data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) and interviews with immigration lawyers in Pennsylvania.
The report focuses on two points:
- Without representation, detained individuals’ outcomes in immigration court are significantly poorer.
- Unrepresented detained immigrants are less likely to file applications for relief, thus having fewer opportunities to succeed in their cases.
The report finds there are vastly different outcomes for people with legal representation versus those who went unrepresented. This imbalance creates serious due process concerns. Individuals with attorneys, for example, have more opportunities to apply for relief from removal, be released on bond, and file successful claims than those without representation.
For the 2,006 cases with representation, nearly 40% filed an application with immigration officials. This is compared to immigrants without representation—less than 12% filed for some form of immigration relief.
While being detained is the greatest obstacle in securing an attorney, the report examines additional barriers that people in immigration detention face.
Limited financial resources make it difficult for people to hire an attorney. Significant language barriers also affect a detained person’s ability to communicate effectively with their attorney and the court, as well as to understand what is happening during the proceedings.
The report recommends that Pennsylvania fund and implement a public defender system to assist detained immigrants facing removal. This system would allow access justice in a way that is not currently available to them under the current system.
When examining the effects of state-provided legal representation on detained immigrants, Access to Counsel in PA references an evaluation of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), the first state-wide public defender style program for detained immigrants in New York. During the first three years, the NYIFUP has provided 1,772 low-income immigrants with no cost legal representation.
In addition to the public defender program, the report recommends phasing out the use of video teleconferencing in proceedings and ensuring that all immigrants have access to qualified interpreters so they can understand the proceedings and the charges against them.
Taken together, these changes will improve fairness and due process for detained immigrants in Pennsylvania.
Yousra Chatti and Sara Firestone also contributed to this article.