Asylum seekers face a new challenge: lawyer shortages

In early 2022, Jander Durán, a hairstylist from Colombia, made the difficult decision to flee his home country with his wife and young daughter. They were forced to leave due to the presence of a dangerous guerrilla group in their village, which posed a significant threat to their lives. Determined to secure a safer future for his family, Durán believed that seeking asylum in the United States was their best option.

After their arrival in Texas, the family was immediately confronted with the daunting task of substantiating their claims. To secure their case, they had to gather solid evidence of the threats they had received and establish the political activism of Durán’s father, which they believed was the main reason behind those threats. This involved an extensive amount of paperwork, amounting to hundreds of pages. Unfortunately, many immigrants struggle with this process, as over 80% of asylum cases end up being rejected.

The Duráns, fully aware that their case’s outcome could be dire, sought the assistance of an immigration lawyer in San Antonio. However, when the day arrived for their case to be heard by an immigration judge in January, their lawyer made a fleeting appearance on a video screen and informed the judge that he would no longer be representing the couple. The reason behind this sudden change was their inability to come to an agreement on the lawyer’s fee.

Durán, unable to gather the amount the lawyer demanded, glanced at his wife with a mix of confusion and disbelief. To provide them with an opportunity to find a resolution, the judge postponed their case.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of migrants seeking refuge in the United States, driven by the desire to escape violence and poverty in their home countries. This surge has presented numerous challenges, including the overwhelming of shelters, the strain on city resources, and the backlog in immigration courts. Additionally, it has created a new hurdle for migrants seeking asylum – a severe shortage of legal representation to guide them through the intricacies of the complex legal process.

Asylum-seekers like the Duráns, who have legitimate claims, often face a genuine risk of being deported to their home countries without the assistance of professional legal help. In such cases, they are exposed to potential arrest, assault, or even death.

According to a recent analysis by Syracuse University’s research group, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, only 30% of migrants are currently able to secure legal representation in legal proceedings. This marks a significant decline from the 65% rate observed five years ago.

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According to Christopher Ross, vice president of Migration and Refugee Resettlement Services with Catholic Charities USA, finding legal representation significantly increases the likelihood of winning an asylum case. However, he acknowledges that this is a challenging task for many migrants who have recently arrived.

The number of immigration court cases has skyrocketed from 300,000 in 2012 to over 3.5 million, resulting in a massive backlog. In the past year alone, more than 1 million new cases have been added to the already overwhelming workload. While nonprofit legal aid organizations and dedicated volunteer lawyers have been offering free assistance, the reality is that the demand far exceeds the availability of qualified lawyers. Despite their best efforts, lawyers cannot sustainably provide unpaid work to this extent.

Amy R. Grenier, a policy and practice counsel with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, highlighted the growing scarcity of immigration lawyers in recent years. She emphasized that while the shortage has always been a concern, it has become increasingly apparent in recent times.

During the Trump administration, Grenier gained valuable experience practicing immigration law for three years. She witnessed the difficulties of this profession firsthand, as she saw her clients’ applications being rejected for minor errors. For instance, even if a certain line on a form did not apply to their case, not filling it out would lead to rejection. Grenier emphasized that not only did she have to navigate her clients’ trauma and carry their hopes for a future in the United States, but she also had to face an uphill battle against the government just to ensure their cases were heard fairly.

According to the Center for Migration Studies, a think tank, there are 1,413 undocumented individuals in the United States for every charitable legal professional. Moreover, states like Alabama, Kansas, and Georgia have limited resources to assist new arrivals, as they lack a robust infrastructure.

According to Allison Hamilton, an executive director at the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, the demand for immigration legal services in the Birmingham area is so high that the group plans to begin offering these services in the fall.

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According to records from Syracuse University, immigration courts are experiencing a significant backlog, with judges having an average of 4,500 pending cases each. The Congressional Research Service estimates that an additional 1,000 judges would be needed to address the current backlog by fiscal year 2032.

Migrants who need to enlist the services of a lawyer may have to pay a significant amount, ranging from $1,000 to $7,000, in order to file an asylum application. Furthermore, they may have to bear the burden of additional costs for countless court appearances and various paperwork over the course of several years. Grenier highlighted that the process of preparing an asylum application alone could take up to 75 hours for a skilled lawyer.

According to the guidelines set by the Department of Homeland Security, migrants can seek asylum if they can provide evidence that they are unable to go back to their home country due to persecution or a genuine fear of persecution based on factors such as race, religion, nationality, membership in a specific social group, or political opinion.

According to Grenier, the asylum system relies heavily on the presence of trauma, and dealing with trauma can be a lengthy and complex process.

Migrants have historically encountered difficulties in accessing legal assistance. Ángel Aldana, who crossed the border illegally from Mexico in the mid-1990s and later settled in Birmingham, faced a similar predicament. It wasn’t until 2007 that he managed to find a lawyer willing to take on his case. With the lawyer’s assistance, he effectively contested an order of deportation, although he had to engage the services of two additional lawyers to establish his legal residency.

Years later, he frequently receives inquiries from new immigrants seeking assistance in finding a lawyer. Aldana shared, “When I reach out to my previous lawyer to inquire about taking on a new case, he advises me not to refer anyone else to him. His caseload has become overwhelming, and he is struggling to keep up with the demand.”

People like the Duráns, who have active asylum cases and wish to protect their family members in Colombia by omitting their first last name, often find themselves trapped in a legal limbo for several years.

Those who have an ongoing asylum application can stay in the United States and work legally as they await their hearing in front of an immigration judge. Durán, for instance, earns around $700 per week as a delivery worker, while his wife, Omaria, occasionally finds work as a nanny. They use their income to cover the $1,400 monthly rent for a modest apartment in Pflugerville, a suburb of Austin.

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He said that he is learning English in hopes of finding a better-paying job. Durán has posted several notes on a section of his bedroom wall to help him practice how words are spelled and pronounced in English. One of the notes says, “When (wen) Cuando,” while another one says, “Why? (wai)? Por que?”

The couple is confident that they have a strong claim for asylum. They argue that their family was specifically targeted by the guerrillas due to Durán’s father’s activism against the forced recruitment of teenagers into armed groups. According to their asylum application, they initially reported the threats to the Colombian equivalent of the attorney general’s office. However, as the threats intensified and authorities failed to provide adequate security guarantees, they made the decision to flee in 2022.

Durán expressed deep fear and concern for the safety of his family, acknowledging the formidable power and potential threat they face.

After their arrival in Texas, the couple enlisted the services of their initial lawyer, who agreed to handle their case for approximately $10,000. He assisted them in obtaining temporary work permits but later requested additional funds to handle their actual asylum case, as confirmed by the lawyer in an interview. Despite reaching out to various charitable legal services, the couple did not receive any responses. “We were losing hope,” Durán’s wife expressed.

In the weeks that followed, the Duráns went around asking every migrant they encountered if their lawyer could accommodate one more client. Eventually, a fellow migrant from Colombia reached out to his own lawyer and made a heartfelt appeal on behalf of the couple.

After carefully reviewing the case, the lawyer, Jeff Peek, agreed to represent them and they reached an agreement on a payment plan.

Peek expressed enthusiasm about representing the client and stated, “He has a compelling case, and we are eager to present our arguments on his behalf.”

The next court date is scheduled for sometime this summer.

“We will finally have the support of a lawyer representing us,” Durán expressed with relief. “No longer will we be abandoned in the courtroom.”

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