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Monthly Archives: May 2016

Getting it Wrong on Right to Counsel, By the Numbers

Ingrid V. Eagly & Steven Shafer, A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court, 64 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1 (2015).

I admit it. I’m a data geek. Not that I produce any of it myself—regression analysis makes my hair stand on end—but I am really good at admiring the work of people who are really good with data. And the data I really like (lots) sheds light on issues we all really care about. Presumptuous of me, you might think, to think I know what you care about. But don’t you care about lawyers?

You will, if you don’t, after you read Ingrid Eagly and Steven Shafer’s A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court. Before delving into it, recall Judge Richard Posner’s less-than-oblique critique of the immigration bar in 2015:

There are some first-rate immigration lawyers, especially at law schools that have clinical programs in immigration law, but on the whole the bar that defends immigrants in deportation proceedings … is weak—inevitably, because most such immigrants are impecunious and there is no government funding for their lawyers.

Eagly and Shafer begin where Judge Posner left off—with the story of the momentum toward establishing a first-rate public defender system for poor immigrants facing deportation. Judge Robert Katzmann, Peter Markowitz, Stacy Caplow, and Claudia Slovinsky led the most prominent of these efforts, which culminated in the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project. That project provides detained New Yorkers with representation in removal proceedings at state expense. And what convinced the New York state legislature to support such a scheme, aside from Judge Katzmann’s gravitas and Stacy Caplow and Peter Markowitz’s irresistible charm?


The Study Group on Immigrant Representation that Judge Katzmann convened (and on which sat some of the law school clinicians that Judge Posner excepted from his critique) found that 60 percent of New York’s detained immigrants did not have legal representation. Of that unrepresented 60 percent, only three percent won in court, in contrast with a 74 percent success rate for the non-detained represented population. That data was critical to convincing the New York state legislature that it was worth ponying up the $500,000 for a pilot program to provide appointed counsel for New Yorkers in removal proceedings.

The program and the data, however, are confined to New York. The debate about appointing defense counsel for immigrants is national. The cost-benefit analysis of whether to institute government-appointed removal counsel has been heavy on the cost side (lawyers are not cheap), and light to helium on the benefit side (do lawyers increase accuracy and efficiency in immigration cases?).

There is no shortage of information about the cost of erroneous outcomes in immigration court—the social and economic costs of unnecessary detention and erroneous removal include the rending apart of families, etc. versus the cost to society of erroneously granting immigration relief.

But there has been a scarcity of national information about the benefits of government-provided deportation defense counsel. In other words, if noncitizens already can obtain affordable counsel, or are able to obtain accurate outcomes without lawyers, then the debate is merely sound and fury. Until now, we have had no way to know.

Eagly and Shaffer fill this cavernous ignorance. Theirs is the first national study of the difference that immigration lawyers make, and it’s powerful medicine. They examined (with the help, I can only assume, of everyone they know) over 1.2 million deportation cases decided between 2007 and 2012. Two percent (2%) of the studied noncitizens obtained pro bono representation. Thirty-seven percent (37%) overall obtained a lawyer. What was the difference that a lawyer makes? Not obvious to a layperson (especially one unversed in the complexities of U.S. immigration law) is that the most salient issue in immigration cases is not whether a deportability ground applies. Instead, most cases rise and fall on relief from an applicable deportability ground. And if you don’t ask for relief, odds are that good that you won’t get it.

Representation makes a difference, it turns out. Noncitizens with representation were fifteen times more likely to seek relief in immigration court, as compared to those without counsel. And the odds were five and a half times greater that immigrants with counsel, as opposed to those without, obtained relief from removal.

That’s great for the individual noncitizens, and their friends and family and anyone else who would have had to (a) exist, and (b) support them in order for their bid for relief to be successful. But what’s in it for everyone else, like U.S. taxpayers?

For one thing, representation is efficient. Here’s what they found:

[I]nvolvement of counsel was associated with certain gains in court efficiency: represented respondents brought fewer unmeritorious claims, were more likely to be released from custody, and, once released, were more likely to appear at their future deportation hearings.

But Eagly and Shaffer don’t stop there. They were curious about what factors affect the level of representation and what barriers might exist. There are three: detention, geography, and nationality.

The nationality figures are striking. We knew that Mexicans were by far the largest nationality group in removal proceedings. We might have suspected that they were also the least likely to be represented by counsel. But check out this disparity: Only 21% of the 574,448 Mexicans in removal proceedings had an attorney. “In sharp comparison,” say our authors, “the 40,397 Chinese placed in removal proceedings were represented in 92% of the cases.” And those are just the Mexicans who had access to immigration court, rather than experiencing administrative removal.

Recall that 37% national representation rate? That number drops to 14% for detained immigrants. Consider the fact that almost one-third of detained cases are adjudicated where most detention centers are located, in rural areas and small cities where immigration attorneys are in short supply, and you end up with facts like these:

The highest detained representation rate of 22% was in El Paso. The lowest—a shocking .002% over the entire six-year period of our study—occurred in Tucson, Arizona. We investigated further and learned that immigration judges in Tucson utilize a “quick court” in which expedited hearings are held in Border Patrol detention stations and judges’ chambers. The end result is the lowest representation rate in the country and lightning-fast processing times (97% of detained cases in Tucson were processed in one day).

Even Dr. Who couldn’t prepare for a removal hearing in that nick of time.

Here’s my one beef with this piece: the authors are a bit too mellow about the significance of their work. They state: “This research provides an essential data-driven understanding of immigration representation that should inform discussions of expanding access to counsel.”

That statement is not wrong. It’s just incomplete. The rest of it should read “and therefore our study should be airdropped on Congress and every state legislature in the country.” Some of them will like it. Lots.

Cite as: Juliet Stumpf, Getting it Wrong on Right to Counsel, By the Numbers, JOTWELL (May 30, 2016) (reviewing Ingrid V. Eagly & Steven Shafer, A National Study of Access to Counsel in Immigration Court, 64 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1 (2015)),

Rethinking International Law’s Responses to Refugee Flows

Tendayi Achiume, Syria, Cost-sharing, and the Responsibility to Protect Refugees, 100 Minn. L. Rev. 687 (2015).

Over the past few months, the world has been transfixed by the flows of Syrian refugees pouring into Europe. These mass movements were, of course, preceded by much larger populations fleeing Syria for neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey; at last count, four million Syrians resided in these three states. Though international law mandates protection against refoulement, or return to Syria, for those who fit the definition of a refugee, the UN Refugee Convention says nothing about who should bear the costs of protecting these refugees. This is the gap that Tendayi Achiume seeks to fill in her forthcoming article, Syria, Cost-sharing, and the Responsibility to Protect Refugees.

The question of global cost-sharing for refugees is ground well-trod, perhaps most famously by Prof. Peter Schuck in his 1997 article, Refugee Burden-Sharing: A Modest Proposal. That controversial piece has since framed the debate around the topic. Prof. Achiume steps into this arena with a novel and provocative proposal: to leverage the international legal doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) in order to frame international coordination around and equitable cost-sharing for refugees. Perhaps best known as the doctrine that enabled humanitarian intervention in Libya, RtoP is not without its critics, as Prof. Achiume readily acknowledges. Her article suggests using RtoP as a tool to address the free rider problem in responding to mass refugee flows while at the same time viewing the situation of Syrian refugees as a tool to rethink potential uses of RtoP on the world stage. Making this case is not a task for the faint of heart; Prof. Achiume’s combination of boldness and fine-grained attention to each layer of her complex argument will manage to convince even the most skeptical of readers to rethink their views of refugee cost-sharing and RtoP.

Prof. Achiume frames the situation in Syria as a problem of inequitable distribution of resources rather than a lack of resources. The primary responsibility for supporting Syrian refugees has fallen on its neighbors, who simply cannot bear the burden alone. Lebanon, which has been the hardest hit by the Syrian situation, now hosts approximately one million Syrians, a full quarter of its population. Yet donor countries have failed to provide adequate assistance; as of May 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Syrian Regional Refugee Response Plan, focused on assistance to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey was only 20% funded – one explanation for the large secondary flows of Syrians into Europe last summer. Prof. Achiume suggests that international law should frame international assistance for these refugees as obligatory rather than charitable in order to encourage the more equitable distribution of resources.

That law is of course nowhere to be found in the UN Refugee Convention, which studiously avoids the topic of mass influxes of refugees, let alone resources for addressing such flows. Rather than resuscitating the overused and threadbare argument that the Refugee Convention should be amended or otherwise updated to include such obligations, Prof. Achiume offers a novel insight: the situation of refugees is governed by multiple legal regimes. We can therefore locate elsewhere in existing international legal structures the obligation to equitably distribute resources to protect refugees.

Prof. Achiume steers the reader towards a particular structure: RtoP. This international legal doctrine, endorsed by UN member states and the UN Security Council, consists of three pillars. Pillar One focuses on a state’s obligations to its population; Pillar Two on the commitment of the international community to help states meet their Pillar One responsibilities, largely through international assistance and capacity-building; and the infamous Pillar three, which lays out the international community’s commitment to respond when a state “manifestly fails” to fulfill its responsibilities under Pillar One, first using pacific and, if those fail, coercive measures. The article focuses on Pillar Two and the role it could play in addressing the situation of Syrian refugees.

As Prof. Achiume recognizes, an RtoP approach is both less and more protective than an approach grounded in international refugee law. RtoP protects populations against only four relevant crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. While refugees fleeing Syria will be covered by this definition, in other scenarios, refugees who fall within the scope of the UN Refugee Convention definition will not be protected. But RtoP holds tantalizing promise, as Pillar Two is not territorially limited: it protects populations without regard to their geographic location. As long as they face a risk of RtoP crimes, refugees fall within the scope of RtoP wherever they are. Thus RtoP offers space for a nose under the tent of sovereign territoriality, a move that is all too rare when it comes to the movement of people under international law.

Prof. Achiume ends the paper with specific suggestions for implementing an RtoP approach, leveraging theoretical critiques of RtoP to design routes around the political roadblocks. She suggests that the UN Security Council could use its Chapter VII mandate to “maintain or restore international peace and security” to mandate compliance with a Comprehensive Plan of Action designed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is a creative approach, but the paper only gets more interesting from here. Taking on board the arguments of critical and realist skeptics, Prof. Achiume recognizes that both northern and southern states must support an RtoP approach for it to succeed. This is where refugee cost-sharing can revive RtoP – by prioritizing non-coercive measures, the doctrine could win the support of middle powers and southern states. This move also puts northern states in a double-bind; after supporting coercive action in Libya, they are hard pressed to reject non-coercive action. If they do, it will be clear that RtoP is simply, in Prof. Achiume’s words, “a Trojan horse for coercive foreign intervention.” In other words, this approach serves an information-forcing function that is useful regardless of the outcome. Substantively, northern states might also view the benefits to regional and international security as well as migration management from such an approach as in their self-interest.

Prof. Achiume’s article pushes the envelope in numerous exciting directions, not least by describing a mechanism for progressive development of international refugee law that does not require the drafting of a new treaty. While readers may quibble with some of its most ambitious proposals, the piece pushes the engaged reader to re-think deeply-held beliefs about refugee law and RtoP. This is exactly what the best scholarship should do.

Cite as: Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Rethinking International Law’s Responses to Refugee Flows, JOTWELL (May 16, 2016) (reviewing Tendayi Achiume, Syria, Cost-sharing, and the Responsibility to Protect Refugees, 100 Minn. L. Rev. 687 (2015)),