Immigration judges in Los Angeles heard 27,200 cases in the last fiscal year, and stepped-up enforcement is expected to result in more this year, reports the city’s Times. But unlike defendants in criminal courts, individuals in immigration court do not have the right to free representation. Though there are no local statistics on the number of people who appeared in immigration court without lawyers, 58% of respondents nationwide were unrepresented, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the courts.
“Immigration laws are extremely complex,” said Immigration Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “It’s a tremendous aid to us when someone is competently represented.” But finding an inexpensive or free attorney can be extremely difficult, advocates and lawyers said. And the stakes are high: Foreigners can face deportation, family separation and even political persecution. The federal government, private firms and nonprofit organizations are launching new efforts to increase pro bono representation. But advocates said the only solution would be a public defender program.