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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.

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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)),