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Immigration Law

Measuring In Absentia Removal in Immigration Court

Ingrid Eagly, Esq. and Steven Shafer, Esq., January 28, 2021

"Do immigrants attend their immigration court hearings? This question is central to current debates about the immigration court system. Contrary to claims by the government that most immigrants fail to appear in immigration court, our analysis of data provided by the federal government reveals that 83% of all nondetained immigrants with completed or pending removal cases from Fiscal Years (FY) 2008 through 2018 attended all of their court hearings. Among those who were represented by counsel during the same time period, 96% attended all of their court hearings. Moreover, we reveal that 15% of those who were ordered deported because they didn’t appear in court successfully reopened their cases and had their removal orders rescinded. This crucial finding suggests that many individuals who fail to appear in court wanted to attend their hearings but never received notice or faced hardship in getting to court.

Key Findings

  • 83% of nondetained immigrants with completed or pending removal cases attended all their hearings from 2008 to 2018.
  • 96% of nondetained immigrants represented by a lawyer attended all of their hearings from 2008 to 2018.
  • 15% of all removal orders for failure to appear issued from 2008 to 2018 were successfully overturned. In some years, as many as 20% of all orders of removal for missing court were later overturned.
  • Individuals who applied for relief from removal have especially high rates of appearance.
  • Appearance rates varied strongly based on the immigration court’s location.
  • The Executive Office for Immigration Review’s method for measuring the rate at which immigrants fail to appear in court presents a limited picture of the frequency of missed court appearances.

This report presents these and other key findings from a recent study of the rate at which immigrants appear for hearings in U.S. immigration court. The findings stand in marked contrast to the bold and inconsistent claims made by former President Donald Trump and members of his administration about purportedly dismal court appearance rates. Indeed, former President Trump repeatedly shared misinformation that noncitizens never or rarely appear in court. Policymakers have relied on these assertions about purported failures to appear to drive key decisions, including to expand reliance on immigration detention and to reduce access to asylum. Appearance rates have also been pivotal to the debate about building a border wall, which the Trump administration sought to justify by claiming that those who cross the southern border simply “vanish” into the country and never come to court.

This report provides accurate information, based on independent analysis of government data, of the rate at which immigrants attend court. It sheds light on the concerted effort made by immigrants to comply with the law so as to increase transparency to policymakers and the public. The report provides a detailed analysis of the frequency of in absentia orders and discusses the important relationship between appearance rates and representation by counsel, applications for relief, and court location. Taken together, this data-driven report lays bare the lie that noncitizens never appear in court. It also serves as a necessary guide for the newly elected administration of President Joe Biden, which has the opportunity to take a fresh look at immigration policy and implement the data-driven policy recommendations discussed in the report’s conclusion.

Although much is at stake, government officials offer no verifiable empirical support for their claims that migrants “never” or rarely come to court. Therefore, scholars, members of the press, and other experts have turned to the annual report published by the statistical division of EOIR. The EOIR’s annual statistics yearbook has typically included a measurement of the in absentia removal rate but has offered only a sparse description of the method used to reach their measurement. This report offers an independent analysis of EOIR’s method for calculating in absentia removal and discusses the policy implications of these findings.

About the Data

This report analyzes the government’s own court records in immigration cases. Using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), these court records were obtained from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that conducts immigration court proceedings. EOIR periodically updates these data, and we analyzed data tables made available by EOIR as of November 2, 2018. These data included 8,253,223 immigration court proceedings, with completed and pending cases dating back to 1951.

To conduct the analysis, we limited our data to 2,797,437 nondetained removal proceedings from the period between fiscal years 2008 and 2018. These proceedings included both individuals who were never detained and those who were released from detention. Each of these immigration court proceedings contained one or more hearings.

For more information regarding the data and methodology used in this analysis, see Ingrid Eagly and Steven Shafer, “Measuring In Absentia Removal in Immigration Court,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 168, no. 4 (2020): 817-876."