NY Facing 'Crisis' With Immigration Lawyers, Study Finds

There is a “crisis” in the quality and availability of immigration lawyers in the state, the New York State Bar Association says in a new report.

The study flags a "dire" shortage of lawyers who are qualified to practice immigration law and inadequate safeguards against incompetent lawyers guiding immigrants through removal proceedings.  

"When you have incompetent immigration representation, or you have no attorneys available to represent immigrants in immigration court, it requires immigration judges to step in and take over the process, and that clearly hampers the proceedings for immigrants," said Joanne Macri, who helped put together the report. Macri is the director of the Criminal Defense Immigration Project for the New York State Defenders Association in Albany.  

The study, released last week, is the first time lawyers in New York state have convened to set minimum standards for the performance levels of immigration lawyers.

One theory about the shortage of immigration attorneys is that many of them are concentrated in New York City and Buffalo, where most of the immigration courts are, leaving vast swaths of the state with too few lawyers. It’s unclear how New York state measures up to other states.

But even immigration lawyers in Buffalo perceive a profound shortage of immigration lawyers – particularly ones who are willing to work with low income populations.

Jenny Rizzo, an immigration lawyer in Buffalo who believes the study is an important step in the right direction, said anyone with the funds to hire a lawyer can probably get one in New York. But those who cannot afford lawyers are the ones out of luck.

“Since there’s a shortage of lawyers willing to provide pro-bono representation for these low income clients, there have been instances where non-profits will have a case worker without a law degree help represent these clients.”

And that well intentioned, but usually unqualified, assistance, she said, frequently leads to serious mistakes. Rizzo mentioned one instance in which a caseworker without a law degree helped a Burmese immigrant she later represented. The caseworker filled out an immigration form incorrectly, and as a result, Rizzo explained, the federal government suspected fraud and denied visas to the immigrant’s wife and child.

His wife and child eventually were permitted to come into the country, but only after she spent considerable time rectifying the caseworker’s mistakes.

Last fall, faculty at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law conducted a survey of immigration judges. The overall performance of immigration lawyers, the judges said in the anonymous survey, was "inadequate" 33 percent of the time and "grossly inadequate" in 14 percent of the cases.

"Unlike criminal proceedings, where if you cannot afford counsel, there's a right for counsel to be provided to you, immigration proceedings does not allow for that opportunity," said Macri, noting why scrutiny among the legal profession was long overdue with respect to immigration issues.  

According to the lawyers who drafted the report, immigrants in the state often do not understand how to acquire legal representation and do not have the ability to represent themselves. Language problems only further exacerbate these representation problems.  

The lawyers note that the shortage is felt most heavily in the areas of the state where immigration assistance is needed the most.

"Particularly in the central part of New York state, especially where there are large majorities of migrant farm workers and other immigrants, such as refugees who are resettling in various parts of upstate New York, we don't have an availability of attorneys that specialize in immigration law to represent these individuals," said Macri.

The report also highlights a critical shortage of qualified immigration lawyers for incarcerated populations upstate. While immigrants are serving their prison sentences, they are often placed in front of immigration judges who decide whether to remove the person from the country.  

New standards are proposed for training, fees, file maintenance, continuing legal education, caseload management and what minimum duties an attorney has after deciding to walk an immigrant through removal proceedings.  

Caseload management is a routine challenge for immigration lawyers precisely because of a dire shortage of immigration lawyers in the state, said Jojo Annobil of The Legal Aid Society, who also helped prepare the report.