Immigrants with ‘Big Law’ attorneys more likely to avoid deportation

Immigrants who sought relief from deportation in the federal appellate court system were three times more likely to succeed when they were represented by an attorney from one of America’s top 200 law firms rather than by lawyers who were from smaller or more specialized immigration firms, according to a new study by researchers from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law’s Stewart Center on the Global Legal Profession.+

Because they possess enormous resources, have teams of colleagues who are ready to assist, and have great familiarity with the norms and practices of the federal appeals process, the so-called Big Law firms can be quite successful in helping immigrants who are in the federal appellate courts avoid deportation.

The authors — IU law professor Jayanth Krishnan, third-year law student Megan Riley and University of Notre Dame Visiting Fellow Vitor Dias — have published their findings in “Big Law’s Immigration Advocates,” forthcoming next year in the University of Illinois Law Review. They examined more than 23,000 immigration cases in the federal appellate courts during the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

“The research is clear,” Krishnan said. “Immigrants in these forums do far better when they have Big Law lawyers compared to when they don’t. While we suspected Big Law attorneys were going to be effective at the federal appellate level, we did not predict that they would be so effective. The gap between their win rate and that of non-Big Law attorneys was something that we now better understand after conducting this research, but the fact that the gap is so wide is important to recognize.”

During the previous administration, for example, immigrants “were clearly a target of former President Trump [as] he enacted policies that were intended to increase deportations and reduce the procedural options available for staving off removal from the country,” the authors wrote.

One of Trump’s first executive orders after taking office in January 2017 was Executive Order 13769, which attempted to restrict mobility into the U.S. from people coming from Muslim-majority countries.

“Those who had been approved to enter from abroad had their visas revoked, and others who had already arrived were detained at American airports or told they had to return home,” Krishnan said. “The response by immigrant rights advocates was immediate, with more than 1,000 volunteers stepping up to provide legal representation.”

A noteworthy number of those volunteers were from Big Law firms.

Additionally, Big Law success was even greater during the Obama administration, which had also been harshly criticized by advocates for being excessively focused on the deportation of immigrants. Data analyzed by the researchers found that Big Law attorneys were successful in about 44% of cases during the eight years Obama was in office compared to a success rate of 13% by non-Big Law lawyers.

The authors believe one of the key lessons from the study is how important it is for everyone to have access to top-notch legal representation.

“Lawyers can matter, and they can matter greatly,” Krishnan said. “We now know that at the federal appellate level, just like in lower-level immigration courts, the effect of having the right attorney leads to a far better chance of success for the individual.”

Krishnan said the study highlights opportunities for attorneys to do more when it comes to assisting immigrants — who don’t have a right to government-appointed counsel in immigration proceedings — as they navigate an often complex and costly process.

“Big Law’s work to date has been laudable and life-changing for those immigrants who have prevailed, but there is the exciting possibility for lawyers from these firms to do even more,” he said. “As we’ve seen, there is a deep desire among many Big Law attorneys to help. The hope is that this aspiration will be scalable so that immigrants currently languishing with futures that appear both bleak and uncertain can receive the legal assistance they so desperately need — sooner rather than later.”


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