U.S. Immigration: Lacking Lawyers, Newcomers Join the Undocumented

By Dennis Stinchcomb

Immigration court backlog

Pending cases from the Northern Triangle in U.S. immigration courts. These cases now account for over 53% of the total backlog. / Note: FY 2018 data is through July 31. / Data source: TRAC, “Immigration Court Backlog Tool,” http://trac.syr.edu/phptools/immigration/court_backlog/.

As Central Americans swell the backlog of cases in U.S. immigration courts, the tens of thousands of them who do not have lawyers are joining the ranks of the country’s undocumented population.

  • The immigration court system lacks the resources to keep pace with the influx of unaccompanied children and families from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The backlog of cases has more than doubled since 2013 – from 350,000 to over 764,000 as of August – with cases involving people from these three countries now accounting for more than half of them.  The wait for a hearing is now several years, and pro bono or low-cost attorneys are overburdened.
  • Many thousands of other newcomers – lacking information and the ability to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and fear – are not looking for legal assistance, and they remain unaware that representation is critical to their chances of legally staying in the United States. Migrants without an attorney are far less likely to appear in court, and many – nearly 40 percent (or 103,000) of all Central Americans whose cases were filed in 2013-17 and have been decided– are ordered deported “in absentia” just for failing to appear at a scheduled hearing.  Immigrants with an outstanding removal order who are apprehended are subject to expedited deportation without judicial review, meaning that – again, without a lawyer – they will be returned to their home countries without ever having the legal merit of their claims evaluated.

Nonprofit community-based organizations across the country are mobilizing resources – often in collaboration with local governments and pro bono partners – to address these people’s legal needs, but a report* by CLALS reveals that access to counsel varies widely.

  • Access remains inadequate even in large receiving destinations like the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where robust legal service infrastructures have developed in response to decades of immigration. In less traditional destinations, like North and South Carolina, only around a quarter of juveniles are represented in immigration proceedings.  In addition to geographical disparities, newcomers face differing odds of securing an attorney depending on their nationality.  Less than half of Central American minors nationwide have an attorney.  Based on a review of decided cases initiated in 2013-17, Salvadoran juveniles were more than twice as likely to be represented than their Guatemalan and Honduran counterparts, probably a reflection of the extent their communities are organized.

President Trump is justified in claiming that the immigration courts are inefficient – cases take an average of almost two years – but his proposal (tweeted on June 24) is to restore “Law and Order” and to “immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring [migrants] back from where they came.”  His deeper dissatisfaction appears to be with a legal process that requires the impartial application of U.S. law – which for the majority of Central Americans fortunate enough to have an attorney results in a grant of legal status.  While this outcome may be unacceptable to the president, many localities across the United States have recognized the social and economic costs of destabilizing families and communities, and of depriving immigrant community members of due process.  Trump may hope that denying due process will dissuade individuals from entering or remaining in the United States, but the crisis in the U.S. immigration adjudication system is likely to remain serious, and tens or even hundreds of thousands more newcomers are likely to join the millions of immigrants already living in the shadows.

October 16, 2018

*The full report, “Newcomer Central American Immigrants’ Access to Legal Services,” is available for download here.  No registration is necessary.  The report is the first in a series generated as part of the project by CLALS in collaboration with the University of Houston, “The Impact of Central American Child and Family Migration on U.S. Communities,” led by Eric Hershberg and Jodi Berger Cardoso.