More Illegal Immigrants Now Have Attorneys

Monday, 21 Apr 2014 09:00 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Most undocumented immigrants who end up in court now have lawyers, though just five years ago far fewer were being represented, new federal government data reveal — and many of the attorneys are working pro bono through programs coordinated by the federal government.

This past year, 54 percent of the people in immigration proceedings were being represented, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review's 2013 statistical yearbook, while in 2009, only 39 percent had attorneys.

Immigrants are getting lawyers, reports The National Journal, because in the past few years the government has done more to connect them with pro bono, or free, representation through third-party groups.

The Department of Health and Human Services coordinates pro bono representation for juveniles involved in immigration proceedings and other programs, such as creation of the Legal Orientation Program for Custodians in 2012, and helps connect adult custodians of undocumented children to attorneys.

In addition, the EOIR itself has a program that connects low-income undocumented immigrants to reputable lawyers.

Immigration cases have been changing over the years, in part due to an order in 2011 by John Morton, then-director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, that directed officials to take some circumstances into consideration, including how long a person had been in the United States.

Also, the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law allows youths to delay deportation proceedings, meaning such cases have increased through the years.

As a result, the immigrant community now has "kind of a savvier understanding of what their rights might be," said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Also, more immigrants are now aware that they can be represented by an attorney because of increases in anti-deportation activism, she said.

Immigration cases are on the decline, though, The National Journal reports, dropping from 224,577 in 2009 to 173,018 in 2013.

Williams said that many of those persons may have already been exposed to legal resources. In addition, she said, AILA membership has gone up in recent years, and the increase in legal representation may just be because "there may be more attorneys available for people to retain, and it may just be as simple as that."

Because more immigrants have attorneys, their cases are taking longer to resolve, and that also means the number of deportation cases has slowed down, The New York Times reports. Deportations have dropped by 43 percent from 2009 to 2013, and about half of the immigrants are winning their court cases.

Just 1 percent of illegal immigrants living in the United States last year were deported, a dramatic 25 percent drop from the previous year. The Obama administration says that's purposeful because of a shift in focus.

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