A New Challenge for Asylum-Seekers: Lawyer Shortages

Jander Tristancho and Maria Perez, asylum seekers from Colombia, at their home in Round Rock, Texas on Feb. 8, 2024. (Christopher Lee/The New York Times).
Jander Tristancho and Maria Perez, asylum seekers from Colombia, at their home in Round Rock, Texas on Feb. 8, 2024. (Christopher Lee/The New York Times).

SAN ANTONIO — In early 2022, Jander Durán, a hair stylist in Colombia, fled the country with his wife and young daughter after a guerrilla group that had moved into their village made it clear their lives would be in danger if they stayed. Durán decided their best hope was making a case for asylum in the United States.

They made their way to Texas, and were quickly overwhelmed with the complexity of proving their case: They would need concrete proof of the threats they had received and evidence of Durán’s father’s political activism, which the family believed was the reason for the threats. The process would require hundreds of pages of paperwork. Most immigrants founder there; more than 80% of asylum cases are rejected.

Knowing that losing their case could be a death sentence, the Duráns hired an immigration lawyer in San Antonio to help them through the process. But on the day their case was finally called before an immigration judge in January, their lawyer made only a brief appearance on a video screen and notified the judge that he would no longer be representing the couple — they had not been able to agree on his fee.

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Durán, who said he had been unable to raise what the lawyer was asking for, looked at his wife in confusion and disbelief. The judge postponed their case to give them time to come up with a solution.

Migrants fleeing violence and poverty from all over the world have crossed the U.S. southern border in record numbers in the past few years, a surge that has overwhelmed shelters, left cities scrambling for resources and added to backlogs in the immigration courts. The surge has also created a new obstacle for migrants hoping to win asylum in the United States: a serious shortage of lawyers to help navigate the notoriously complicated legal process.

Without professional legal help, many asylum-seekers like the Duráns with legitimate claims face a real risk of deportation back to their home countries, where many of them face potential arrest, assault or even death.

Only about 30% of migrants are now able to find a lawyer to represent them in legal proceedings, compared with 65% five years ago, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University.

“The chances of actually winning your asylum case go up exponentially if you are fortunate enough to find legal representation, but that is a challenge,” said Christopher Ross, vice president of Migration and Refugee Resettlement Services with Catholic Charities USA, a group that helps newly arrived migrants.

The immigration court backlog has gone up to more than 3.5 million from 300,000 cases in 2012, with more than 1 million new cases added in the past year. Nonprofit legal aid groups and thousands of volunteer lawyers have provided free help, but lawyers say they can only do so much unpaid work — and there are far fewer qualified lawyers than clients.

“There has always been a shortage of immigration lawyers, but the shortage has become more evident in recent years,” said Amy R. Grenier, a policy and practice counsel with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Grenier practiced immigration law for three years during the Trump administration, experiencing firsthand how challenging that job could be. She said she saw her clients’ applications rejected for minor mistakes, such as not filling out every line on a form, even if it did not apply to their case. “In addition to navigating your client’s trauma and carrying their hopes of a future in the United States, you can be fighting an uphill battle against the government just to get their case heard fairly,” she said.

The Center for Migration Studies, a think tank, found that there were 1,413 undocumented persons in the United States for every charitable legal professional. And there is far less capacity in states such as Alabama, Kansas and Georgia, which do not have a large infrastructure to help new arrivals.

Allison Hamilton, an executive director with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said the need was so great in the Birmingham area that the group was preparing to start providing immigration legal services there in the fall.

The backlog is also evident in immigration courts, where judges average 4,500 pending cases each, according to the Syracuse University records. The Congressional Research Service has estimated that it would take about 1,000 more judges to tackle the current backlog by fiscal year 2032.

Migrants who must hire a lawyer can pay anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 to file an application for asylum, and much more for what may be years of court appearances and other filings. Grenier said it often took an experienced lawyer up to 75 hours just to prepare an asylum application.

Migrants are eligible for asylum if they can prove that they are unable to return to their country because of “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” according to Department of Homeland Security guidelines.

“The whole asylum system hinges on there having been trauma and navigating trauma is very time-consuming,” Grenier said.

Migrants have long faced problems getting legal help, to some degree. Ángel Aldana, 52, crossed the border illegally from Mexico in the mid-1990s and eventually settled in Birmingham, but it was not until 2007 that he was able to find a lawyer to take his case. That lawyer helped him successfully fight an order of deportation; he had to hire two more lawyers to secure a legal residency.

Now, many years later, he said he often heard from new migrants looking for advice on securing a lawyer. “When I call my old lawyer and ask him if he can take on a new case, he tells me not to send him any more people,” Aldana said. “He has too many and can’t keep up.”

Those with active asylum cases, like the Duráns, who asked that the first last name they use in Colombia be omitted to avoid retaliation against their family members there, often see their cases stuck in legal limbo for years.

Under the law, those with an active asylum application can remain in the United States and legally work while they wait for their day before an immigration judge. Durán has been earning about $700 a week as a delivery worker and his wife, Omaria, gets occasional work as a nanny. They pay $1,400 a month for a small apartment in Pflugerville, a suburb of Austin.

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

The couple believe they have a good case for asylum. The guerrillas targeted their family because Durán’s father was a well-known activist who spoke out against forced recruitment of teenagers to join the armed groups, they said. In their asylum application, they said they had initially filed a complaint about the threats with the equivalent of the attorney general in Colombia, but decided to flee in 2022 when the threats escalated and authorities did not offer security guarantees.

“My family and I live in fear. We know their reach and that they can come and kill us,” Durán wrote.

After arriving in Texas, the couple hired their first lawyer, who agreed to take their case for about $10,000. He helped them secure temporary work permits, but then said he would need more money to take on their actual asylum case, details that the lawyer confirmed in an interview. The couple called several charitable legal services but did not hear back. “We were losing hope,” Durán’s wife said.

In the weeks that followed, the Duráns took to asking any migrant they met whether their lawyer could squeeze in one more client. Finally, a fellow migrant from Colombia called his own lawyer and pleaded on the couple’s behalf.

That lawyer, Jeff Peek, reviewed the case and agreed to take it, and they settled on a payment plan.

“He has a strong case and we’re excited to get in there and make an argument for him,” Peek said.

Their next court date is set for sometime this summer.

“This time, we’ll have a lawyer advocating for us,” Durán said. “We won’t be left alone in the courtroom.”

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