Georgia among worst states for legal representation for immigrants, report finds

Lack of attorney significantly impacts chances of staying in the U.S.
Detainees playing soccer at Stewart Detention Center, a holding facility for immigrants being processed for deportation. (JOEY IVANSCO/staff photo).

Detainees playing soccer at Stewart Detention Center, a holding facility for immigrants being processed for deportation. (JOEY IVANSCO/staff photo).

Immigrants facing deportation are less likely to have access to a lawyer in Georgia than in nearly every other state.

That’s the takeaway from a recent report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a nonpartisan research organization at Syracuse University.

According to the immigration court data compiled by TRAC, there were more than 40,400 pending deportation cases in Georgia at the end of May 2021, but only around 15,500 of them had attorney representation. That means the odds of being represented in high-stakes deportation cases stand at around 39%. Only four other states registered lower rates of representation, with three of them — North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama — also in the Southeast. None of the states with lower rates of representation than Georgia have a bigger backlog of deportation cases: the Peach State ranks 8th nationwide for total pending deportation cases.

Georgia immigrants’ slim odds of representation is, in part, caused by the state’s more widespread use of immigrant detention. According to a 2016 report from the American Immigration Council, immigrants in detention were the least likely to acquire counsel, with a representation rate of only 14% (compared with around 65% for non- detained immigrants). As of July 22, Georgia was home to the fourth largest population of ICE detainees in the country, per data compiled by TRAC.

Geography is also a factor. Of the state’s three immigration courts, two are in Atlanta but the third is inside the facilities of the Stewart Detention Center, located in the remote, small town of Lumpkin, where immigrant detainees outnumber residents.

Advocates say that the Stewart court’s location, more than 100 miles south of Atlanta, has historically dissuaded attorneys from taking cases there. According to the American Immigration Council report, only 6% of Stewart detainees had access to an attorney in the period from 2007 to 2012, the latest data available. That is less than half the national rate for immigrants in detention.

The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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Among the lawyers who are on the ground at the Stewart immigration court is Matt Boles, who lives full time in Lumpkin. Boles is an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), a program started in 2017 to provide pro bono legal representation to immigrants in the Deep South. He says rates of representation in Georgia are low in part because there’s not enough pro bono services in the state to meet the existing demand.

In July, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which administers the immigration court system, updated its list of pro bono legal services available in Georgia. Only three providers are included in the document.

“It just shows how there’s a lack of these kinds of resources, unfortunately,” Boles said.

Palmer Lawrence leads the legal services department at the Atlanta-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which offers both free and low-cost deportation defense, among other services. She says her four-attorney office receives dozens of calls every week.

“We just can’t represent everyone,” she said. “Doing these sort of deportation defense cases are really, really time-consuming. Basically, there’s not enough attorneys who specialize in this area of law, and then those that do, have to charge for their time. "

In the absence of pro bono representation, many immigrants and their families struggle to gather the necessary funds to hire a private attorney. That cost barrier increased over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession it triggered, which disproportionately impacted immigrant workers’ employment status.

“When we speak to prospective clients, they’re like, ‘Well, you know, I guess my family before was able to pay for an attorney. But now, that person is on furlough from their job, or they’ve lost their job, or their hours have been greatly reduced,’” Boles said. “So maybe this time 18 months ago, they would have been able to afford an attorney. Now, that’s certainly not the case.”

Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants do not have a right to government-appointed counsel if they can’t afford private representation.

Representation makes a difference

Access to counsel has an outsized impact on immigrants’ ability to remain in the U.S.

According to a 2018 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, only 5% of immigration cases that ended in victory between 2007 and 2012 did so without an attorney, while 95% of successful cases were represented.

“It is nearly impossible to win deportation cases without the assistance of counsel,” report authors noted.

At the Stewart court, representation rates that are among the lowest in the nation help yield deportation rates that are among the highest. In fiscal year 2015, less than 2% of immigrants there won their cases, according to data from the Department of Justice.

Amilcar Valencia is the executive director of El Refugio, a nonprofit that supports immigrant detainees and their families. He says that a select few can try to meaningfully represent themselves in immigration court — if they are fully bilingual and savvy enough to study the laws that govern the “notoriously complex” U.S. immigration system, as the Vera Institute put it.

“But the reality is that not everyone is capable of that,” Valencia said. “If you don’t have [a lawyer], you are at the mercy of ICE.”

Lawrence agrees.

“I would say even most attorneys who don’t specialize in immigration don’t understand the nuances of it. A lot of technical expertise is required,” she said. “It’s pretty near impossible for a person to represent themselves without some sort of support and actually be successful.”

And while securing representation won’t always translate into success in court, Valencia notes that there are also mental health benefits that come with partnering with a lawyer.

“Even if you know that you have many things against you, if you have representation, you are more up to date with what’s happening in your case, you know what to expect,” he said. “That affects your mental health, your morale.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.