Access to Justice for Unaccompanied Minors in US Immigration Court: Representation Rates across Place and Individual Demographics

Sat, 6/3: 12:45 PM - 2:30 PM
Paper Session 
Caribe Hilton 
Room: Beach Wing – Flamingo B 


Since 2009, the US has seen over 750,000 unaccompanied minors-children under age 18, who migrate without their parents or legal guardians-arrive at its border with Mexico. Thanks to decades of advocacy work, unaccompanied minors are a protected category in US immigration law who benefit from certain due process protections unavailable to adults. Yet, like adults, unaccompanied children are placed in removal proceedings in immigration court, where they must apply for deportation relief to remain in the US in the long term. Applications for immigration relief are highly complex, requiring legal expertise that lay people seldom possess. Research has found that immigrants who are represented by an attorney face drastically better odds of winning their immigration cases. For unaccompanied minors, legal representation increased their likelihood of being allowed to stay in the US from 15% to 73% (TRAC 2014). However, the US does not guarantee universal free legal representation to unaccompanied minors, creating a context in which children must compete for the scarce good of free legal aid funded by limited state and private resources. There are also too few private immigration attorneys to meet demands. In the context of limited supply of legal services, this paper asks, what are the determinants of access to legal representation among unaccompanied children?

We develop a new sampling strategy to identify unaccompanied minors in the administrative US immigration courts data, thus overcoming limitations of existing indicators flagging this population which have been "too faulty to be trusted" since 2018 following changes made by the Trump administration (TRAC 2021). We next examine the role of geographic variables (e.g., city size, distance the immigrant residents from immigration court) and individual immigrant characteristics (gender, age, nationality) in shaping children's access to legal representation. 


Chiara Galli, University of Chicago  - Contact Me


Tatiana Padilla, Cornell University  - Contact Me
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