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Follow our coverage of immigration and related issues affecting Latinos in the Charlotte area.

North Carolina Ranks Last In The Country For Legal Representation In Immigration Cases

North Carolina ranks tenth in the country for total pending deportation cases and last for the likelihood of having legal representation in immigration cases.
North Carolina ranks 10th in the country for total pending deportation cases and last for the likelihood of having legal representation in immigration cases.

Esta historia está disponible en español en La Noticia

North Carolina ranks last in the country for the likelihood of having legal representation in immigration cases, according to a reportfrom the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. It also ranks 10th for total pending deportation cases.

According to the data, there are more than 34,000 pending cases in the state, but only around 8,000 of them have an attorney involved. The odds of legal representation for immigration cases are at 23% for North Carolinians.

That compares to California that tops the list for pending cases with around 193,000. But 77% of the immigrants in those cases have an attorney.

This data is not necessarily surprising, says attorney Rebecca O’Neill, a co-founder of the Carolina Migrant Network.

“The thing is that there are not enough immigration attorneys in the state to meet the need,” she said.

O’Neill says she’s meeting with clients this week who booked appointments with her seven months ago. She says she isn’t even scheduling appointments with clients who are not currently detained because the demand is so high.

The reason for this high demand is twofold, she says. On the one hand, North Carolina doesn’t have enough attorneys who focus on deportation cases. On the other hand, the cost of legal representation is often a barrier for many immigrants.

“Of course, many individuals, especially after this past year with COVID, they can't afford a private attorney,” O'Neill said. “ It's very expensive to hire an attorney, period. And that includes immigration attorneys.”

That’s why O'Neill co-founded Carolina Migrant Network. The nonprofit provides low-cost and free legal immigration services across North Carolina.

Immigration cases are civil proceedings, O’Neill says, so no one is entitled to a lawyer. This means finding representation is down to the individual. But she says having an attorney is imperative.

“I don't think it's possible to overstate how important it is,” she said.

Immigration law is complex and constantly changing.

“You go to court and there is a lawyer representing the government vigorously arguing for your removal,” she said. “And you're not an attorney. Probably you don't even speak English. So you're working through a court interpreter. And how would you know what relief you're eligible for?”

However, the data show thousands of cases go unrepresented. Mecklenburg County is one of only 25 counties in the U.S. with more than 10,000 pending cases. And in only 20% of those cases, the immigrant has an attorney, putting the county at the bottom of the list. Mecklenburg is home to the only immigration court in North Carolina.

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Maria Ramirez Uribe is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte.