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As cases skyrocket, more immigrants are going to court without lawyers in NY

Just about half of the people going through immigration court proceedings in New York are navigating the often complex system with an attorney, data shows.

From October 2022 through September 2023, 49% of people with cases in New York state immigration court were represented by attorneys, according to federal data published by researchers at Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse late last month.

The latest data marks a steep decline from pre-pandemic times, when four-fifths or more of immigration court cases in the state had a lawyer attached. Experts say that’s largely because more people have been arriving in the city and state from all over the world.

New York state, a longtime leader in providing legal counsel for immigrants, has lost its spot as the state with the highest rate of legal representation, according to an analysis of the data by the Vera Institute, an advocacy group that aims to end mass incarceration.

New York is now in third place behind California and Virginia, said Neil Agarwal, a data scientist at Vera.

“That’s gone down in large part because there’s been a dramatic increase in pending cases,” Agarwal said. “The number of people represented has grown, but there’s a drop in the proportion of people.”

Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly railed against the expense of tending to recently arrived migrants, saying that their care costs the city billions and is the driving force behind recent budget cuts. Around 150,000 migrants have passed through New York City since 2022, roughly 67,000 of whom are living in city shelters, according to City Hall.

City, state and federal officials have launched legal clinics and other on-the-ground assistance efforts to aid newcomers in filing complicated immigration paperwork, with the ultimate aim of securing work authorizations that would allow them to legally work in the U.S. and offer them a pathway out of the city’s shelter system.

But as more migrants arrive in the state, New York state immigration courts’ pending caseloads have more than doubled since 2019, echoing nationwide trends. The backlog of immigration cases long predates the latest round of migrants, said Susan Long, a statistics professor at Syracuse University who co-directs the immigration data clearinghouse.

“This is a long-standing problem,” Long said. “We weren’t starting from a position where things were going well. We have starved immigration courts forever.”

Unlike U.S. citizens, noncitizen immigrants facing deportation aren’t entitled to legal counsel. Without an attorney, many struggle to navigate a confusing system with dire potential consequences, including detention and deportation, said Shayna Kessler of the Vera Institute.

“Every data point shows that if you have a lawyer, you’re far more likely to be able to defend your rights and ultimately to be able to stay in the country,” Kessler said.

Although the caseload is growing and the number of people with attorneys to represent them is diminishing, there is a silver lining: New York City immigration judges are more likely to approve asylum cases and other types of immigration proceedings than many other jurisdictions, TRAC data shows.

On average, city judges deny asylum or other relief in a little over one-third of cases — the third-lowest average rate of all the courts for which data is available.

But outcomes vary dramatically depending on the individual judge’s caseload and judicial perspective, according to a TRAC report on the judge data. And New York judges, like immigration judges nationwide, are overwhelmed by the backlog of cases — nearly 4,500 pending cases per judge, TRAC estimates.

City, state and federal officials are making some efforts to help immigrants navigate the bureaucratic hurdles.

New York has offered publicly funded attorneys for detained immigrants facing deportation since 2014 – a practice picked up by other states and jurisdictions, including New Jersey and Philadelphia. The Biden administration hired more immigration judges after the case count skyrocketed during the Trump presidency, and judges themselves are closing cases more quickly than they were a few years back.

Meanwhile, immigration advocates are pushing for the passage of the Access to Representation Act, which would extend the right to counsel to all New Yorkers in immigration court proceedings. New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand has also sponsored a 2023 bill that would make lawyers available to anyone facing deportation nationwide.

But in the meantime, the backlog continues to grow. And without a major staff-up, TRAC’s Long says, there simply won’t be enough immigration lawyers or judges to keep up with surging cases.

“You can’t magically, suddenly have a bigger supply,” Long said. “You don’t just instantly become an immigration attorney. It’s not a ‘push a button’ kind of a thing.”

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