It has long been the case that immigrants have a right to counsel in immigration court, but that
expense has generally been borne by the noncitizen. Because deportation is classified as a civil
rather than a criminal sanction, immigrants facing removal are not afforded the constitutional
protections under the sixth amendment that are provided to criminal defendants. Whereas in the
criminal justice system, all defendants facing even one day in jail are provided an attorney if
they cannot afford one, immigrants facing deportation generally do not have that opportunity.
Detained immigrants, particularly those held in remote locations, face the additional obstacle of
accessing counsel from behind bars. Yet, in every immigration case, the government is represented
by a trained attorney who can argue for deportation, regardless of whether the immigrant is
The lack of appointed counsel may have a profound impact on immigrants’ ability to receive a fair
hearing. Past research has highlighted the importance of counsel for asylum seekers, and regional
studies have highlighted the important role attorneys play for immigrants navigating immigration
courts in New York and san Francisco. Yet, up to now, the debate about access to counsel has
proceeded with little reliable national information on how many immigrants facing deportation
obtain attorneys, the barriers to accessing representation, and how such representation impacts the
outcomes of their cases.
This report presents the results of the first national study of access to counsel in U.s.
immigration courts. Drawing on data from over 1.2 million deportation cases decided between 2007
and 2012, the report provides much-needed information about the scope and impact of attorney
representation in U.S. immigration courts.