Often, the orders are being made in abstentia because asylum-seekers who came during the Central American surge a few years ago misunderstand the legal process or are afraid to show up in court, fearing immediate deportation.
The rate of in absentia deportation orders by immigration courts are increasing as judges work to resolve the asylum cases of families who streamed across the Southwest border since 2014, reports The Marshall Project. Tens of thousands of families from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and some from Mexico, came here citing their need for protection from predatory gangs and criminal violence. Of nearly 100,000 parents and children who have come before the courts since 2014, most asking for refuge, judges have issued rulings in at least 32,500 cases, court records show. Seventy percent ended with deportation orders in absentia, pronounced by judges to empty courtrooms.
Many immigrants did not understand what they were supposed to do to pursue their claims and could not connect with lawyers to guide them. Some just stayed away, fearing they could be deported directly from courthouses and choosing instead to take their chances in the immigration underground. Immigration courts have long had high rates of in absentia rulings, with one-quarter of all cases resolved by such decisions last year. But the rate for families who came in the border surge stands out as far higher, according to the Justice Department.
Immigrants in the U.S. illegally have no right to free legal counsel, so the vast majority who appear in immigration court stand alone before a judge. A new initiative suggests just how valuable legal aid can be. Since 2013, the New York Immigrant Family Unit Program has provided publicly funded attorneys for poor detainees in removal proceedings at a Manhattan immigration court. And deportations there have plunged.
Nearly two-thirds of the defendants in America’s immigration court system face a judge without legal help because immigrants have no right to counsel, reports Public Radio International. While it’s hard enough for the working poor to find qualified representation, doing so as an immigrant in detention is almost impossible. Just 37 percent of people facing deportation have an attorney with them. For people in immigration detention, that number falls to 14 percent, according to a study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.
An apparent trend in a New York immigration court suggests how important legal representation can be. Deportation orders issued this year at the Varick Street Immigration Court in Manhattan are projected to be at their lowest level since 2013. In 2012, 1,202 people were ordered removed from the U.S. at that courthouse, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. This year, the number is just 535. The decline is partially credited to a first-of-its-kind legal project. In 2013, the New York Immigrant Family Unit Program began to provide publicly funded representation to poor detainees in removal proceedings. The initiative ensures that anyone in detention whose case is heard at the Varick immigration court has access to a qualified immigration attorney. “No family can have a loved one locked up and deported, simply because they can’t afford counsel,” says Peter Markowitz, director of the Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo School of Law. “That’s not justice, and we don’t do that in New York.”