If you are an asylum seeker in the United States who cannot afford an attorney, your chance of finding pro bono assistance is now slimmer than ever. As the number of cases in immigration court has increased, the amount of free representation for immigrants has not. At the Immigration Justice Campaign, we have seen that the need for free representation far outstrips the combined capacity of non-profit organizations and the available pool of volunteer attorneys.
A report released last week by Syracuse University’s TRAC project shows that the rate of pro bono representation in immigration court has fallen by more than half—from a peak of 5% to 2% in just under two years. Strikingly, the actual number of cases with pro bono representation has not fallen—pro bono representation rates actually grew the most between 2020 and 2022. Rather, the total number of cases before our immigration courts has increased significantly. This means that despite the continued efforts of dedicated pro bono attorneys, they are being asked to meet an ever-growing gap.
The Immigration Justice Campaign was created to help fill this gap. Since its start in August 2017, the Campaign has provided pro bono attorneys to almost 2000 people in need. More than half of those cases were placed and mentored between 2020 and 2022. Our volunteers have been instrumental in everything from helping individuals seek release from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention to successfully arguing cases at the nation’s courts of appeals.
Despite these successes, every year we encounter people who we were unable to help. People tell us they have called every listed organization providing free or low-cost help in their area and every single one has turned them away. We hear from people who live in states with only one or two—or no—pro bono representation programs that provide legal services in immigration court. With limited resources and a finite pool of pro bono volunteers, there are people we were simply unable to help.
We at the Campaign know that pro bono representation is a critical bandage for many individuals who are at risk of removal from the United States. Despite—or perhaps because of—this, we also know that pro bono representation is insufficient to cover the wound.
This is why it is so critical to fund representation for individuals facing deportation. We know that having access to counsel leads to a higher likelihood of winning your case—non-detained immigrants with attorneys are 5 times more likely to win their case compared to those without counsel. Fewer than 1 in 4 people ordered deported so far this year have had an attorney—while 78% of those who successfully submitted an asylum application to the court had an attorney. Providing attorneys not only protects immigrants’ rights and access to due process, but it also helps the government by making the system more efficient and reducing the number of hearings necessary to complete a case.
Given the realities of continued migration to the United States and the Biden administration’s emphasis on lessening the backlog in the immigration courts, it seems likely that the number of cases closed every year will continue to increase. Without changes to the system, the percentage of cases with pro bono representation will likely continue to decrease and more people will have to go it alone. But the risks are too high, especially since the stakes that many individuals face in immigration proceedings are life and death. Access to counsel must be built into the plan—doing anything less is a disservice and a danger to the vulnerable people who need it most.