Newcomer Central American Immigrants' Access to Legal Services

51 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2018 Last revised: 9 Jan 2019

See all articles by Dennis Stinchcomb

Dennis Stinchcomb

American University - Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS)

Jodi Berger Cardoso

University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work

Date Written: September 2018


Increased Central American child and family migration is impacting local communities across the U.S. Between late 2013 and mid 2018, over 193,000 unaccompanied children (UACs) and 300,000 adults and children traveling as family units from Central America were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. As their cases overburden the immigration courts, federal engagement in the provision of immigration legal services remains virtually non-existent. Local governments and community-based organizations (CBOs) have been forced to improvise how best to provide legal services for this growing newcomer population as they navigate the immigration process. Varying levels of capacity and response across diverse community contexts, however, are contributing to disparities in newcomers’ ability to secure an attorney. Without legal representation, many newcomers face nearly certain deportation regardless of whether they may qualify for immigration relief.

To better understand local variations in the provision of legal assistance and barriers faced by Central American migrants in accessing existing services, researchers from the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University and the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston conducted interviews with service providers, local government officials, and other stakeholders across three major immigrant receiving communities: the Washington, DC and Houston metropolitan areas, and North and South Carolina. Drawing on project interviews and publicly available data, this report documents legal service gaps, catalogues the principal challenges confronting community-based legal service providers, and highlights strategies for enhancing service provider capacity and overcoming access barriers.

While both public and private partners across a number of U.S communities are engaged in innovative, scaled-up approaches to providing legal services, demand continues to outstrip available resources. The need is particularly acute in localities outside of the major metropolitan areas that are home to large Central American immigrant communities. Significant barriers to access remain and—in the current context of immigration enforcement policy—are accumulating. The forecast of continued strain on an already over-taxed ecology of service providers and on the immigration adjudication system threatens the well-being of tens of thousands of newcomers whose futures hinge on improved capabilities.

Keywords: immigration legal services, legal services, Central America, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, asylum, unaccompanied children, family migration, immigrant integration

Suggested Citation

Stinchcomb, Dennis and Berger Cardoso, Jodi, Newcomer Central American Immigrants' Access to Legal Services (September 2018). CLALS Working Paper Series No. 19, Available at SSRN: or

Dennis Stinchcomb (Contact Author)

American University - Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) ( email )

4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC
United States

Jodi Berger Cardoso

University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work ( email )

4800 Calhoun Road
Houston, TX 77204
United States

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