Government Saves Money When Immigrants Get Public Defenders

An Orange County Sheriff’s deputy keeps a watch over a group of immigration detainees. CREDIT: AP PHOTO / JAE C. HONG
An Orange County Sheriff’s deputy keeps a watch over a group of immigration detainees. CREDIT: AP PHOTO / JAE C. HONG

Giving attorneys to detained, poor immigrants “would pay for itself,” according to a new NERA Economic Consulting study commissioned by the New York City Bar Association. The NERA study released Friday projects that the cost of providing public defenders to those individuals would be offset by savings arising from the that that the government would not have to pay for additional detention time, transportation, and sometimes unnecessary deportation for indigent immigrants.

Detainees in immigration court proceedings do not have a constitutional right to government-provided representation, so they either have to represent themselves or find their own attorneys.

Dr. John Montgomery, the study’s author, predicted that providing legal representation for immigrants could drastically cut down the total time that immigrants spend in detention centers by about 1.1 million days per year. And because the detention cost for one immigrant is estimated to be about $160 per day, the cumulative savings hovers around $173 million dollars and would like be “substantially more.” Legal representation could cut down on the number of continuances, or additional time, requested by immigrants who are still searching for legal representation. Montgomery projected that “eliminating the need for continuances alone, could shorten proceedings involving detainees by 12.7 days on average,” down from 20.5 days.

The study also found that because immigrants with legal representation may be more likely to secure release through a successful bond hearing, they could “spend less time in detention, thus incurring lower detention costs for the federal government “and would also be able to continue working, supporting their families, paying taxes, etc., while they were waiting for their cases to be adjudicated.” That could eliminate possible government costs to provide care for their dependents and foster care for their children. All told, Montgomery estimated a total annual savings anywhere between $204 million to $208 million — about the same cost as additional and sometimes unnecessary detention and deportation.

One study found that 74 percent of immigrants with legal representation had successful outcomes, while 97 percent of immigrant detainees without representation lost their cases. Even so, about 43.5 percent of immigrants in removal proceedings were unable to obtain legal representation in the 2012 fiscal year, an issue that immigration judges would like to see resolved since “competent lawyers” could help them conduct cases “more efficiently and quickly.”

With more than 100 immigration judges eligible for retirement this year and a wait time of 562 days for immigrants to have their cases heard, Montgomery’s plan could help to free up the massive immigration backlog. As of March 2014, there were still 366,758 pending immigration court cases.

As Mark Noferi, an adviser on the NERA study, pointed out to ThinkProgress on Monday, 76 percent of Americans and a bipartisan group of politicians support appointed counsel for immigrants in deportation proceedings. Last year, Noferi argued that “providing lawyers to detainees would be a surprisingly easy sell politically, if history is a guide” since “Congress extended the right to appointed counsel to accused violent felons at bail hearings hearings (1984), convicted sex offenders at civil commitment hearings (2006), and suspected al-Qaida supporters in military detention hearings (2012), whether citizens or not.”