By SAM DOLNICK
More than two years ago, a federal judge in New York began a crusade to find lawyers for the many immigrants who are detained or deported because they lack representation. Powerful figures, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, heard the call and helped draw attention to the issue.
But the problem persists in immigration court, where defendants have no right to a court-appointed lawyer, forcing many to go without and drastically raising their chances of being deported. Although Mr. Bloomberg promised $2 million to train lawyers in immigration issues, the city has not produced the money.
On Tuesday, about 200 leaders from legal, governmental and immigration circles gathered in Manhattan to discuss the barriers that deny many immigrants proper legal counsel. Robert A. Katzmann, the federal judge who started the effort and organized the symposium, called the problem a “substantial threat to the fair and effective administration of justice.”
John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court justice, who galvanized immigrant advocates with a decision last year that said lawyers must tell their clients about the deportation consequences of pleading guilty, delivered the keynote address.
“The need for legal representation for immigrants is really acute,” Mr. Stevens said. He urged the audience to push for Congress to grant state and federal judges discretion in deportation cases because, he said, “the consequences are just so drastic.”
Immigrants’ fate in deportation cases often comes down to whether they can afford a lawyer. Immigrants with legal representation are at least five times as likely to win their cases as those without, yet in New York only 40 percent of detained immigrants have lawyers, according to research by Judge Katzmann’s group that was released Tuesday.
More than a quarter of immigration defendants who have not been detained do not have lawyers either, the study showed.
“The fact that so many can face such dire results at the hands of our legal system without the benefits of competent counsel is one of the blatant injustices of our time,” said Matthew Diller, dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, where the conference was held.
The problem only gets worse when immigrants are sent to distant detention centers in places like Texas or Louisiana, as happens to nearly two-thirds of those taken into immigration custody in New York. Nearly 80 percent of those immigrants are unrepresented, according to the study, which examined Justice Department data from 2005 to 2010.
“If they don’t have a lawyer, it’s because they don’t have anything,” said Lynn M. Kelly, executive director of the City Bar Justice Center. “People beg, borrow and pass the hat around the community to hire attorneys.”
But simply hiring a lawyer is not necessarily a solution. Lazy and unprepared lawyers fill immigration courts, bungling cases at grave costs to their clients, experts say.
“The too-often-poor quality of representation continues to undermine the effective administration of justice,” said Judge Katzmann, who sits on the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
More than 50 New York lawyers who have been expelled or suspended by the Justice Department have cases pending before the immigration courts or the Board of Immigration Appeals, the new research says.
People posing as lawyers are another common problem for vulnerable immigrants, many of whom cannot speak English. “Across New York, fraudulent legal service providers are making huge profits by defrauding immigrant communities,” said Janet Sabel, an official in the state attorney general’s office.
It is highly unusual for a federal judge to embrace a public issue with such vigor, but Judge Katzmann said his background — he is the grandson of Russian immigrants and the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany — had granted him a special sympathy “for those who come to this country and want to make it great.”
His study group, which draws more than 50 immigration experts, has made some progress since it began work in 2008.
The Legal Orientation Program, a Justice Department project that advises immigrants on their rights, opened a New York City branch last year. The ranks of pro bono lawyers working on immigration cases have grown, and the authorities have stepped up efforts to crack down on fraudulent lawyers.
But with much work remaining, many advocates looked to Mr. Bloomberg to fulfill his 2009 campaign promise to spend $2 million to train lawyers. Fatima A. Shama, the city’s immigrant affairs commissioner, said the mayor had not forgotten.
“We will do what we need to do, not only to maintain our commitment around a campaign promise, but around what’s right,” Ms. Shama told the crowd.
At the session Tuesday, many acknowledged that there were no quick fixes to the challenges of immigrant representation.
“These problems have been around for a long time,” said Claudia Slovinsky, a veteran immigration lawyer. She said that only a sweeping solution ensuring representation to all immigrants would address the fundamental inequalities.
“Everything we’re doing in the meantime is short-term improvements of a weak system,” Ms. Slovinsky said.