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November 30, 2016

Correcting the Record: Recently Arrived Immigrants Show Up for Their Hearings

As media outlets continue to cover the increase in Central Americans seeking protection at the U.S. southern border, some are citing statistics that do not present a full picture of their appearance in immigration court. The misinformation leaves the wrong impression that most shirk their obligations rather than pursue requests for asylum.

In fact, available data, analyzed by Human Rights First, indicates that immigrants generally appear for their immigration court hearings, often at high rates.  Factors such as having legal representation and information related to the court process further increase compliance.

The Washington Post and other news agencies have recently reported that around 85 percent of families whose cases ended in a deportation order, were issued that order due to their failure to appear in court. Such a proclamation simply demonstrates that most deportation orders issued by judges were made in absentia. Or, put another way, only around 15 percent of families were ordered deported after full consideration of their case. In fact, the court processed over 130,000 family cases in that same period, of which 72 percent remain pending or were granted relief. 

Based on our experience providing pro bono legal counsel to families and other asylum seekers, we’ve long pointed to the inadequate levels of information provided to those at the border, failures to send notice of hearing dates to the correct locations, and other challenges stemming from border processing. The good news is that, as noted below, there are effective strategies for improving appearance rates.

Additionally, extensive backlogs in the immigration courts mean most cases remain unresolved. Drawing conclusions on appearance and grant rates from the small subset of completed cases does not accurately reflect the tendencies of recent arrivals.  Analysis of continued compliance with immigration hearing obligations paints a more accurate picture.

Per Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), as of October 2016, 98 percent of mothers with legal counsel, whose cases initiated in fiscal year 2014, were in compliance with their immigration court hearing obligations two years later. Ninety-eight percent of children in immigration proceedings also remained in full compliance when represented, and 93 percent of all non-detained represented immigrants appeared in court. Unfortunately, many cannot afford legal counsel and government funding for legal representation for the indigent is very limited.   

High appearance rates among represented immigrants across the board indicate that, when effectively informed, they largely respect and comply with immigration law and procedure. Similarly, community-based case management programs and Legal Orientation Programs, designed to educate immigrants about their responsibilities, lead to high appearance rates.

Community-based case management programs piloted by Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration Refugee Service, which utilize social service approaches to support people through their immigration proceedings, show compliance rates of 96 to 97 percent.

Moreover, 86 percent of people released from detention, following an immigration judge’s custody decision, appear at subsequent court hearings and remain in compliance through the completion of their case.  Those released from detention also benefit from Legal Orientation Programs they received while detained. These programs provide information related to the court process and appearance obligations. Overall, a person is more likely to appear when they understand the process.

Overwhelming evidence of the horrific conditions in the Northern Triangle, as documented by many researchers including UNHCR and human rights organizations, further supports the notion that many Central Americans need protection and will pursue their claims to avoid removal to life threatening circumstances.

Any suggestion that securing appearance of recently arrived immigrants requires even more detention— already at an all-time high and overwhelmingly provided by private prison companies at an average cost of $2.3 billion a year—is simply not based on facts. Immigrants attend their hearings and comply with their immigration obligations at high-rates, and investment in cost-effective case management, community support, and access to counsel would further bolster compliance.