The Movement for Deportation Defense: Information Hub

There were 2.2 million deportation cases pending in the United States as of July 2023, meaning millions of people are at risk of being separated from their families and communities.1 Many may be deported to countries they do not know or where their lives are in danger. Despite these high stakes, unlike in the criminal legal system—which guarantees the right to government-appointed defense counsel under the Sixth Amendment—people in deportation proceedings in the United States have no right to a government-appointed attorney. Yet the U.S. immigration system is notoriously complex and tremendously daunting to navigate alone. Even though public opinion polls show strong, widespread support for government-funded counsel for people facing deportation, far too many people in deportation proceedings are forced to defend themselves against the U.S. government alone—risking permanent exile, separation from families and communities, and even death—simply because they cannot afford to hire an attorney.

In response to such injustice, cities, counties, and states have spearheaded a powerful movement and implemented their own deportation defense programs. Yet a federal immigration system requires a federal solution. These local leaders in the movement have catalyzed action through the introduction in 2023 of the Fairness to Freedom Act in Congress. This bill could transform the landscape of the immigration courts by establishing a universal right to federally funded legal representation for anyone facing deportation who cannot afford it. Use the map below, a hub of data and information at the state and local level, to learn more about the jurisdictions that are leading the way to provide universal legal representation to people facing deportation.

Learn more about deportation defense programs in your region







The right to legal counsel crisis

Among deportation cases in the United States that began in the past five years, people lack(ed) representation 60 percent of the time, and the percentage is higher in cases where people are detained, at 69 percent.2

Winning the right to remain in the United States is incredibly difficult without a lawyer because of the notoriously complicated and ever-changing labyrinth that characterizes immigration law. Since 2001, people have not had legal representation in 4.2 million deportation cases.3 And legal representation matters, as people with lawyers compared to those without are more likely to be released from immigration detention and are more likely to have successful case outcomes that allow them to remain in the United States. Moreover, regardless of whether people gain release or win a case, lawyers hold the government accountable to meeting the burden of proof necessary to deport someone. Without a lawyer, people are unable to exercise their legal right to fight their case, an evisceration of due process.

The growing movement for universal representation

Over the past decade, state and local immigration advocates, community members, and governments have led the movement for universal legal representation, responding to the failure of the federal government to provide due process rights and a fair day in court for our neighbors and community members who are facing deportation. Deportation defense programs across the nation, where people in immigration proceedings can obtain lawyers at no cost to them if they cannot afford it, include members of the Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Network. The SAFE Network is a unique collaboration of government leaders, legal service providers, and community-based advocates all working in partnership with Vera to establish universal representation programs across the country.

Although the creation of a legal representation program in a region means that more people who cannot afford an attorney will be able to obtain one, programs usually do not have the resources and funding to cover everyone in need of a lawyer. Moreover, it is impracticable for local jurisdictions to fully cover issues that are national in scope, as are the detention and deportation systems of the United States, so there remains great unmet need for people without legal counsel. Finding an attorney is particularly difficult for the more than 35,000 people in immigration detention as of September 2023 because finding and retaining a lawyer is exceedingly challenging when people are largely cut off from the outside world. However, the existence of deportation defense programs, some of which prioritize representing people who are detained, help fill a critical need.

It is important to take not only the percentage of immigration proceedings without lawyers, or “rates unrepresented,” into account when thinking about unmet need for legal representation, but also to consider the sheer volume of cases in a jurisdiction. For example, in California, 45 percent of all deportation cases statewide are unrepresented compared to 31 percent in Hawai`i. If one only looked at percentages, one might inaccurately conclude that more people in Hawai`i have lawyers (69 percent) than in California (55 percent). However, with 321,373 total cases in California compared to 1,139 in Hawai`i, attorneys in California are covering more than 176,000 cases, far more cases than even exist in Hawai`i. This example shows how the rate unrepresented is just one metric providing information about legal representation in deportation proceedings but must also be interpreted in the context of the volume of cases in local court(s).4

Two in three people in the United States (67 percent) support government-funded attorneys for people facing deportation

Vera partnered with the survey firm Lucid to poll residents across 18 jurisdictions (cities, counties, and states) and nationally between September 2019 and March 2022 to explore attitudes toward government-funded attorneys in immigration proceedings.5 These surveys reveal a pattern of robust and widespread support. While immigration is often a polarizing issue between Democrats and Republicans, the polling revealed bipartisan support on this specific issue. These findings speak to widely held values of fairness and justice—and the idea that people in the United States believe in the right to an attorney in a court of law when life and liberty are at risk. National polling results by survey respondent characteristics are presented below. Use the map above to explore jurisdiction-specific polling (although Vera did not conduct surveys in all jurisdictions).6

Take Action

Join Vera and advocates nationwide in calling for the right to counsel for anyone facing deportation.

  • Equip yourself with information and use resources on this page to advocate for universal representation in your locality or state and nationally.
  • Call on Congress to support the Fairness to Freedom Act to establish the right to representation for all people facing deportation who cannot afford a lawyer on their own.
  • If you belong to a nonprofit 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) organization, work for a private firm, or are an elected official and want to endorse the Fairness to Freedom campaign, join here.

1 Vera researchers analyzed court data, current through July 2023. Vera obtained the data from the Executive Office for Immigration Review through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 It should also be noted that the data includes children, family, and adult cases, and that these groups are not equally likely to have attorneys. For example, the federal government has determined that certain unaccompanied children in certain immigration courts are entitled to a government-funded lawyer, which would result in lower shares without lawyers among this group. On the other hand, the inclusion of children in the data could lead to higher shares without lawyers if there are sizeable portions of unaccompanied children in a court who are not eligible for government-funded attorneys, as a child cannot be expected to find and pay for a private attorney like an adult could. Regarding families, the Biden administration created the Dedicated Docket process to speed up case times for families arriving at the southwest border and placed in immigration proceedings; however, expediting cases means families have less time to obtain legal representation and family cases might therefore be associated with higher shares without attorneys.

5 Vera and Lucid administered these surveys online and constructed or weighted samples to approximate the U.S. population in terms of demographics.

6 Polling results are not necessarily comparable across all jurisdictions due to a difference in survey design. Three of the surveys—in Colorado, Los Angeles County, and New York State—used a different question wording than all others, asking, “Do you support or oppose the government paying for an attorney for everyone who cannot afford one in a court of law, including people in immigration court?” All other surveys asked, “Do you support or oppose the government paying for an attorney for immigrants facing deportation who cannot afford one in immigration court?” Although these are similar wordings, the key difference is that the former wording asks about “an attorney for everyone” and then folds in immigrants into the wider pool of lawyers for all people. Conversely, the latter wording is much more direct, asking only about attorneys “for immigrants facing deportation.” Survey experiments were carried out to evaluate if these wording differences affected outcomes, and they do. People are significantly more supportive in the former rather than the latter question wording. Nonetheless, even when asked more directly about attorneys “for immigrants facing deportation,” there is a pattern of solid majority support across the United States.

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