The Role of Lawyers in Immigration Bond Hearings

July 10, 2018

Over the last few weeks, House Republicans have struggled to build consensus around a series of new immigration bills seeking to limit legal immigration and provide funding for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. These Congressional debates have come in the wake of sustained public outcry over President Trump’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has resulted in over 2,300 children being separated from their parents as migrant families are detained at the border. Although in late June Trump issued an executive order halting the practice of family separation, entire families are still being held indefinitely in detention facilities as they await their asylum hearings. And even after detainees are issued court dates, they must navigate complicated legal processes to file claims for asylum. 

According to a 2014 statement from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, there is only one pro bono attorney available for every 120 migrant detainees. While groups such as RAICES and the ACLU are working to increase access to legal services for detainees, many lack adequate representation at their court hearings and are further unable to make bond. In a new report for Law and Society Review, RSF grantee Emily Ryo (University of Southern California) examines the role of lawyers in immigration bond hearings. Analyzing audio recordings of court proceedings, she finds that immigrants with legal representation have significantly higher odds of being granted bond. The abstract of the report reads:

Do immigration lawyers matter, and if so, how? Drawing on a rich source of audio recording data, this study addresses these questions in the context of U.S. immigration bond hearings—a critical stage in the removal process for noncitizens who have been apprehended by U.S. immigration officials. First, my regression analysis using a matched sample of legally represented and unrepresented detainees shows that represented detainees have significantly higher odds of being granted bond. Second, I explore whether legal representation affects judicial efficiency and find no evidence of such a relationship. Third, I examine procedural and substantive differences between represented and unrepresented hearings. My analysis shows no differences in the judges’ procedural behaviors, but significant differences in the detainees’ level and type of courtroom advocacy. Represented detainees are more likely to submit documents, to present affirmative arguments for release, and to offer legally relevant arguments. Surprisingly, however, I find no evidence that these activities explain the positive effect of legal representation on hearing outcomes. These findings underscore the need to investigate not only what lawyers do in the courtroom, but also less quantifiable factors such as the quality of their advocacy, the nature of their relationship to other court- room actors, and the potential signaling function of their presence in the courtroom.

Download and read the full report.

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