ATLANTA – At least 15.4 percent of the undocumented immigrants in southern states are potentially eligible for some kind of immigration status, according to data drawn from legal screenings this year. That would mean at least 600,000 of the unauthorized immigrants living in the seven states surveyed -- about 4 million people -- could be eligible for legal status.
The data were drawn from screenings of 2,700 immigrants conducted from January through April by CLINIC affiliates. Tom K. Wong, University of California at San Diego associate professor of political science, is analyzing the data for a comprehensive report to be issued in coming weeks. The initial analysis was reported May 25 in Atlanta, to participants in CLINIC’s Convening, an annual gathering of the nonprofit immigration legal services network.
Screenings were conducted in: Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. People from Maryland and South Carolina attended screenings in neighboring states.
Wong is continuing to gather results from screenings from other parts of the country before he projects how many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants nationwide could be eligible for legal status.
However, if the information from the initial study carries through across the country, Wong estimates that at least 1.6 million people nationwide may be eligible for legal status.
“As more data come in from other regions, there is reason to believe that the overall percentage of undocumented immigrants who are potentially eligible for immigration relief is higher than 15.4 percent,” he said.
CLINIC’s Executive Director Jeanne Atkinson said: “This data confirms what we have long suspected. Many people who are undocumented may be able to qualify for ‘legal relief.’ This points to a dramatic need for a major effort to screen people to help them understand their options, and to make sure they know their rights.”
Atkinson added: “CLINIC’s network can do this, without waiting for Congress to pass legislation or for a government program to be created. It will require a massive effort. We welcome others who are able to join us. CLINIC is poised to provide technical assistance and training.”
Wong added that, “The results also make vivid an important aspect of the current debate over immigration enforcement. To the extent that administration engages in aggressive interior immigration enforcement, and to the extent that states and localities entangle themselves in these efforts, this is likely to ensnare people who may have a legal means of staying in the country."
Dozens of people who are U.S. citizens or likely U.S. citizens but didn’t know it were also found by the screeners—attorneys and accredited legal representatives who used a screening tool created by CLINIC. Some of those citizenship cases were clear. Others would need to acquire essential documents to prove their status as citizens.
Other types of immigration status for which the screening process found people to be potentially eligible included: asylum, U visas (for victims of crimes), T visas (for victims of human trafficking), a category of visas available under the Violence Against Women Act, and some family related categories.
Atkinson noted that the need for so many people to obtain legal screening also increases the likelihood that vulnerable immigrants will be the targets of unscrupulous people who take advantage of the shortage of qualified legal representatives. This is especially true in southern states, where the population of immigrants has grown rapidly. CLINIC has a fellows program serving southeastern states. When it launched two years ago, there was one immigration legal service provider for every 11,582 undocumented immigrants.
CLINIC materials about how to avoid falling victim to unauthorized practitioners of legal services can be found here cliniclegal.org/notario.
CLINIC’s response to the need for immigration legal services includes the creation of its Defending Vulnerable Populations Project, which aims to train attorneys and fully accredited representatives to assist people in immigration court proceedings.
About the CLINIC Screening Project in the South
Based on anecdotal information, CLINIC has long believed that many of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States are eligible for an immigration legal benefit that would lead to lawful permanent residence. In 2014, working with the Center for Migration Studies and Tom K. Wong, associate professor at the University of California in San Diego, CLINIC and the National Immigrant Justice Center surveyed affiliates to determine the percentage of applicants for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) who were potentially eligible for a more permanent benefit as part of the Potential Eligibility for Relief Survey of Nonprofits (PERSON study). This first-of-its-kind study found that that an estimated 14.3 percent of DACA applicants were potentially eligible for another, more permanent form of relief, but may not have known it or had not pursued it.
Screening in the South
Given the findings of the PERSON study, CLINIC wanted to expand the study to the general population. Over three months, CLINIC funded 16 affiliates in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia to screen more than 3,000 unauthorized immigrants. Included in the screenings was “Know Your Rights” information. This was provided especially to assist people who were not potentially eligible for an immigration benefit.
Wong evaluated the information and found that an estimated 15.4% of undocumented immigrants in the seven states are potentially eligible for immigration relief—approximately 600,000 undocumented immigrants. Additionally, dozens of people who were U.S citizens, or likely U.S citizens, were found.
The data confirm that many immigrants who are currently undocumented are potentially eligible for some form of permanent immigration relief, but do not know it or have not pursued it. The analysis thus far focuses on the U.S. South. There is reason to believe that as more data comes in from other regions, the overall percentage of undocumented immigrants who are potentially eligible for immigration relief will be higher than 15.4 percent, according to Wong.
The screenings also assessed legal barriers to obtaining benefits, required waivers and potential relief in removal proceedings.
CLINIC plans to continue collecting screening information in other regions.