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A horrifyingly low amount of immigrants in detention facilities, prisons, and jails across the country are able to obtain legal representation during deportation proceedings—just 14 percent, between 2007 and 2012, according to a report published Wednesday by the American Immigration Council (AIC).

Despite the rhetoric surrounding undocumented immigrants, deportation is a civil procedure, not criminal, and immigrants facing deportation do not have the same guarantee to legal representation enshrined in the Sixth Amendment that those facing criminal charges do. It's difficult to overstate how important legal representation is in these hearings; immigration court is often confusing and immigrants are often not informed of all their legal rights. Having legal representation doubles the likelihood that immigration judges grant asylum to those seeking it; that statistic increases to triple the likelihood when looking at just the San Francisco Immigration Court, one of the busiest in the country.

The AIC report is the first to look at access to counsel in deportation proceedings before the Justice Department across the whole country (proceedings at the Department of Homeland Security were not included), and the findings are striking. Drawing on files obtained from FOIA requests to the DOJ's Executive Office of Immigration Review, the AIC found that of the 20 immigration courts that handle the most detainee deportation cases, none have representation rates higher than 22 percent.

American Immigration Council


In the case of Tucson's immigration court, which has a zero-percent representation rate for detained immigrants, an investigation by fellows at Arizona State University found that Tucson immigration judges prioritize "quick court" expedited hearings that take place in just a day. "The end result was the lowest detained representation rate in the country and lightning-fast processing times (97 percent of detained cases in Tucson were decided within one day)," the AIC researchers write.

The report also found wide discrepancies in the representation rates of different nationalities. On one end, Mexican immigrants are the most likely to be detained and the least likely to have representation; Chinese immigrants are the least likely to be detained and the most likely to have representation.


Sam Stecklow is the Weekend Editor for Fusion.