Immigrants represented by attorneys far more likely to win deportation cases, Stanford law clinic study finds

For detained immigrants, having a lawyer means everything. A new research report shows that a detainee with legal representation is three times more likely to avoid deportation than someone thrown into the legal system on his or her own. Yet two-thirds of detained immigrants have no lawyer.

Courtesy Stanford Law School Stanford law students Al Montelongo, Kara McBride and Natalia Renta

Law students (from left) Alfredo Montelongo, Kara McBride and Natalia Renta develop a plan for the Immigrants' Rights Clinic's report on access to justice for detained immigrants in Northern California.

In 2013, Francisco Martinez was the primary breadwinner for his longtime resident wife and four U.S. citizen children in Oakland, California, when he was locked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While he was gone, his wife worked a night shift, then came home and began caring for their children. Often she went without sleep for days. Yet she didn't make much money, and she was terrified that she and her children would be evicted. After three months in custody, Martinez was ready to give up, but an attorney from Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland helped him get out of detention in January and allowed him to support his family while his immigration case is resolved.

A report released today by Stanford Law School's Immigrants' Rights Clinic and the Northern California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (NCCIJ) shows the dramatic impact that legal representation has on detained immigrants like Martinez. Those with lawyers are three times more likely to win their deportation cases than those without attorneys, yet two-thirds of detained immigrants have no legal representation at any point in their removal proceedings. The report also details the dire consequences that detention can have upon immigrants and their families.

The report, "Access to Justice for Immigrant Families and Communities," summarizes the findings of two new studies of Northern California immigrants whom the federal government locked up for approximately one year during 2013 and 2014 while their deportation cases were pending in San Francisco Immigration Court. The federal government generally takes the position that immigrants facing deportation – even those who are detained – are not entitled to attorneys unless they can pay for them or find someone to represent them for free.

Strong family ties

The report found that many of those detained had families in Northern California. More than 50 percent of immigrants represented by the nonprofits that were surveyed – representing Northern California's detained immigrants over a year period – had lived in the United States for 10 years of more, and 77 percent had family members living at home in the United States.

"The report reveals that immigrants who are locked up are much more likely to be able to stay with their families and communities if they have an attorney to help them fight deportation," said Jayashri Srikantiah, professor of law and director of the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School. "But, unfortunately, detained immigrants are the least likely to actually have attorneys."

"Our organization, Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto, provides free legal services to detained immigrants, but we cannot serve the overwhelming majority of individuals who contact us for help because we simply lack the resources to do so," said Ilyce Shugall, the directing attorney of the immigration program at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, California.

Students working with the Immigrants' Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School have represented dozens of immigrants in immigration court on a pro bono basis in response to the shortage of attorneys. Three of those students, Natalia Renta (JD '15), Alfredo Montelongo (JD '15) and Kara McBride (JD '15), developed and conducted the survey of the 10 nonprofits that represented Northern California's detained immigrants for low cost or no cost. The survey forms the basis for one of the studies in the report. The other study evaluated all removal cases (8,992) in which a San Francisco immigration judge made a final decision between March 1, 2013, and February 28, 2014.

Jail-like conditions

The report points out that immigration detention is similar to being in jail. Immigrants who are locked up are often kept in facilities with barbed wire and cells, alongside others serving time for criminal convictions. They wear prison uniforms and face restrictions on their visitation, movement, meals, education, phone access and recreation. They may be subject to solitary confinement.

Attorneys can help immigrants obtain bond, so that they can be released more quickly from detention.

"Immigration cases are often legally and factually complex. Having an attorney can make the difference between staying in Northern California with family and permanent banishment from this country," said Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, the immigration program director at Centro Legal de la Raza. The report suggests that a first step toward addressing the attorney gap for detained immigrants in removal proceedings is a pilot program funded by public and private sources.

"Northern California should join New York City, which has recently established a universal representation model for detained immigrants facing deportation," said Robin Goldfaden, senior attorney for the Immigrant Justice Program at Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. "Given that deportation can mean life or death, attorney representation should be a requirement."

The report was written by Srikantiah and Lisa Weissman-Ward, a clinical supervising attorney with the Immigrants' Rights Clinic, along with students McBride, Renta and Montelongo.

Jayashri Srikantiah, Immigrants' Rights Clinic, Stanford Law School: jsrikantiah@law.stanford.edu, (650) 724-2442 (office) or (415) 305-0794 (cell)

Terry Nagel, Stanford Law School: tnagel@law.stanford.edu, (650) 723-2232 or (650) 678-7082

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu