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Surge in U.S. Border Crossings Adds to Shortage in Asylum Lawyers

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

We recently wrote about the surge in migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. This follows the expiration of Title 42, a public health law used to expel migrants, and has created pressure on the Biden administration to act. The President is considering using a different legal justification under immigration law to temporarily suspend migrant entry, potentially impacting asylum seekers who already face a shortage of qualified legal help.

Meanwhile, the steady influx of migrants has affected the legal sector. It’s created a backlog of cases in immigration courts throughout the country, largely those dealing with people seeking asylum, which was exacerbated by the pandemic. With the immigration and asylum process as complicated as it is, it’s hard to navigate without legal experts, particularly when English is not your first language. Unsurprisingly, the whole ordeal has already led to a rapidly growing shortage of attorneys who can help these migrants.

Deportation Cases Surge

Syracuse University has a data gathering, research and distribution organization called the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Its goal is to provide America with data on the federal government's activities regarding migrants, often using public information via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

According to TRAC’s latest data from U.S. immigration courts, as of the end of April, there were nearly 3.6 million migrants with pending deportation cases, compared to only 2.8 million at the end of 2023. Miami-Dade County, in Florida, had the biggest number of deportations. Honduras had the largest number of immigrants that judges ordered to be deported.

By the end of April, the courts had received 1,305,443 new cases in 2024 alone, but only 517,675 cases had been completed by the courts. These are record numbers both of new cases filed in court and of case completions by immigration judges.

What Happens In A Removal?

What does it mean for a case to be “completed” by a court? There are several possible outcomes, but the most common result is that the judge issues a removal order. This is where the judge decides the individual is subject to deportation (it’s also referred to as a deportation order). They may be granted voluntary departure, meaning they leave the country on their own terms within a certain time. If they don’t leave the country or are found to have reentered unlawfully, the voluntary departure order becomes a removal order.

A migrant in deportation proceedings can apply for various forms of relief that allow them to stay in the U.S. legally. This might include asylum, certain types of visas for victims of crimes or domestic violence, or even cancellation of removal for those who have established strong ties to the U.S. And if a judge issues a removal order, in most cases, the migrant can appeal the immigration judge's decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals.

Of course, these options aren’t easy to navigate if you’re not an expert. Immigration law is intricate and constantly evolving, and the court proceedings involve complex legal arguments and evidence presentation. Thus, it’s no surprise that an immigration attorney can significantly increase your chances of a successful outcome in deportation proceedings. Attorneys can negotiate with the government on your behalf and potentially explore options like voluntary departure or prosecutorial discretion. They can also identify rights you're unaware that you qualify for, such as certain protections under international law.

Attorneys Can't Keep Up With Demand

But unlike the right to counsel for criminal proceedings, you don't have a legal right to a government-provided attorney in deportation proceedings. TRAC found that of all the immigrants ordered deported in April, only 13.9% had an attorney. This included even unaccompanied minors. Overall, TRAC found that only about 30% of migrants in all cases are able to find legal representation. Just five years ago, it was more than double that--65%.

Amy R. Grenier of the American Immigration Lawyers Association described in a New York Times interview that she often saw her clients’ applications rejected for mistakes as minor as not filing out every line on a form, even if the information sought was not applicable to the case. She said: “There has always been a shortage of immigration lawyers, but the shortage has become more evident in recent years ... In addition to navigating your client’s trauma and carrying their hopes of a future in the United States, you can be fighting an uphill battle against the government just to get their case heard fairly.”

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