The Risk of Deportation: What Happens When You Can’t Find a Lawyer

This spring, New York State has a chance to make history and ensure the right to legal representation in immigration proceedings.
Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Mar 26, 2024

Far too many people who have immigrated to the United States are deported simply because they don’t have the money for an attorney to protect their rights. As part of state budget negotiations this spring, New York has an opportunity to invest $150 million in immigrant legal services to support people, like Saul*, who are facing deportation proceedings.

Here is Saul’s story, translated from Spanish:

My homeland is a place filled with very kind, very happy people. At the same time, it is a place where people can harm you. In 2013, a narco-trafficking gang killed my brother. They wanted to silence him because he was collaborating with the police. After he was murdered, there was no investigation at all. We tried to go to the prosecutor’s office to get them to open the case. The gang threatened us to make us stay quiet, and then they killed my brother-in-law after he sent my sister and niece to the United States for safety. After he was murdered, they threatened me.

I fled through Mexico and crossed the border into the United States near Tijuana to request asylum. For 16 days, I was held in detention. The first week was rough. They [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] wouldn’t let us take a bath, and they kept a bright light on 24 hours a day. We didn’t have anything to cover ourselves with. When the cold came, we just sat freezing.

After the first detention site, I was moved to another place. It was some kind of jail, but I hadn’t committed any crime. I was really frightened because I didn’t know how long I would have to stay there.

Eventually, they released me from detention, but I did not know there was a specific document I needed to fill out to apply for asylum. I didn’t know anything about these forms because I didn’t have a lawyer. When I had my first court session, the judge asked me if I had completed the paperwork to apply for asylum in the United States. It was really frightening. I worried that if I said something wrong, I would pay the price of being sent back to place where there were threats to my life.

For my second hearing, the judge told me I had to bring an attorney with me. But during the year and a half I have been living in the United States, I have not been able to find or meet with a lawyer. Next month, I have to appear at my second court date. If I don’t have a lawyer by then, I will have to represent myself in court alone.

I have been anxious and anguished about this. It is only days before the next court proceeding. I don’t know what to do. When I go to court, they will probably give me a deportation order because I won’t know what to say or do. I think the most frightening thing is to know that I could return to my country and risk being killed.

Right now, I have my hands tied. An attorney could help me see a glimpse of hope. It is difficult to be here without speaking the language, without help. There should be more legal resources for immigrants, for people in the same situation as me. Many of us are leaving our countries due to danger. Once we arrive in the United States, we are herded into places like animals, with little guidance—not knowing where we are and not knowing the language. Many people in the same situation as myself don’t know how to express themselves in front of a judge or how to apply for asylum. I am not able to say what I want to say. Then you are just left with the choice of not speaking at all.

There needs to be more funding for everyone to receive the legal help they need. The Access to Representation Act is essential because it guarantees immigrants like myself legal representation from lawyers who will fight for our cases and won’t charge us thousands of dollars to help us. I want to be on the pathway to being legalized and having a work permit, where I can financially support myself and create a better future for myself here in New York. It is very pretty here. I would like to have a voice and contribute. What I would love to do is to help my family and to know they will be 100 percent okay.

Access to legal representation can have an enormous impact on the outcome of a person’s immigration proceedings. Those without representation are forced to navigate the country’s outdated and highly complex immigration legal system alone, representing themselves against trained government attorneys in a language they may not know. Among immigrants who are held in detention, those with legal representation are up to 10.5 times more likely to win their right to stay in the United States than those who are unrepresented.

In New York State alone, there are more than 350,000 cases pending in immigration court, and in more than half, people are fending for their lives without legal counsel.

New Yorkers must act now to help the newest members of their communities. Investing in humane immigration policies that enable more community members to remain safely at home, on the job, and with their families both makes New York safer and improves the economy for everyone. Some areas in the state, like central and Western New York, have been revitalized and flourished because of growing immigrant communities. In Utica, for example, immigrants make up about a quarter of the city’s population, and have worked to rebuild rundown houses, start small businesses, and open houses of worship.

In addition to a $150 million investment in immigrant legal services, the state needs to build long-term stability by passing the Access to Representation Act. This bill, the first of its kind in the nation, would establish a right to counsel in immigration court, extending the same protections already available in criminal proceedings. New York has an opportunity to set an example and expand legal representation for immigrants, ensuring that no one faces deportation without a fair day in court.

Vera believes in using our platforms to elevate diverse voices and opinions, including those of people currently and formerly incarcerated. Other than Vera employees, contributors speak for themselves. Vera has not independently verified the statements made in this post.

*Name changed to protect identity.