Lawyers say the Stewart Court location, more than 100 miles south of Atlanta, has historically prevented lawyers from taking cases there. According to the American Immigration Council report, only 6% of Stewart detainees had access to a lawyer from 2007 to 2012, the latest data available. That is less than half the national immigrant detention rate.


The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Among the attorneys on site at Stewart’s Immigration Court is Matt Boles, who lives full time in Lumpkin. Boles is an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), a program launched in 2017 to provide pro bono legal representation to immigrants in the deep south. He says that representation rates in Georgia are low in part because there are not enough pro bono services in the state to meet existing demand.

In July, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which manages the immigration judicial system, updated its list of pro bono legal services available in Georgia. Only three providers are included in the document.

“It just shows how sadly that kind of resource is lacking,” said Boles.

Palmer Lawrence heads the legal department of Atlanta-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which offers, among other things, both free and affordable deportation defense. She says her four lawyers get dozens of calls every week.

“We just can’t represent everyone,” she said. “Deportation defense cases like this are really, really time-consuming. Basically there aren’t enough lawyers who specialize in this area of ​​law and those who do have to bill their time. “

In the absence of pro bono representation, many immigrants and their families struggle to find the necessary funds to hire a private lawyer. This cost barrier has increased in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession, which has disproportionately affected the employment status of immigrant workers.

“When we talk to prospects, they say, ‘Well, you know, I think my family used to be able to pay a lawyer. But now that person is on leave, has lost his or her job, or their hours have been severely reduced, ”said Boles. “So maybe 18 months ago you could have afforded a lawyer this time. Well, that is certainly not the case. “

Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants are not entitled to a government-appointed attorney unless they can afford private representation.

Representation makes the difference

Access to legal aid has an overwhelming impact on the ability of immigrants to stay in the United States

According to a 2018 report by the non-partisan think tank Vera Institute of Justice, between 2007 and 2012 only 5% of immigration cases that ended in victory were conducted without a lawyer, while 95% of successful cases were represented.

“It is almost impossible to win deportation cases without the help of a lawyer,” the report’s authors noted.

At Stewart Court, representation rates among the lowest in the country contribute to the highest deportation rates. According to the Ministry of Justice, less than 2% of the immigrants there won their cases in the 2015 financial year.

Amilcar Valencia is the managing director of El Refugio, a non-profit organization that supports immigrant detainees and their families. He says that a select few can seek meaningful representation in immigration courts – if they are fully bilingual and well-versed enough to study the laws that govern what the Vera Institute puts into the “notoriously complex” US immigration system.

“But the reality is that not everyone can do it,” said Valencia. “If you haven’t [a lawyer], you are at the mercy of the ICE. “

Laurent agrees.

“I’d say even most lawyers who don’t specialize in immigration don’t understand the nuances. It takes a lot of technical know-how, ”she said. “It is almost impossible for a person to represent themselves and actually be successful without some kind of support.”

And while representation in court is not always successful, Valencia notes that working with a lawyer also has mental health benefits.

“Even if you know you have a lot of things against you when you have a representative, you are better informed about what is going on in your case, you know what to expect,” he said. “It affects your mental health, your morale.”

Lautaro Grinspan is a member of the Report for America Corps, which covers the immigrant communities in the Atlanta metropolitan area.