According to the EOIR website’s List of Currently Disciplined Practitioners, almost 400 immigration attorneys (397 by my count) have been seriously disciplined since 2000. What I mean by “seriously disciplined” is suspended or expelled from the practice of law. The list does not include attorneys who have been subjected to lesser punishments, such as “reprimands” or “admonishments,” whatever those are.
Last I heard, there were around 10,000 attorney-members of AILA, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, but it is unclear how many other attorneys practice immigration law. Assuming (and it is a big assumption) that AILA represents 50% of all immigration attorneys; there are about 20,000 immigration attorneys nationwide. If 400 of them had been suspended, that means that about 2% of all immigration attorneys have been seriously disciplined.
Depending on your point of view, maybe 2% is a lot, or maybe it is a little. Call me a pessimist, but if I hire someone to assist me with one of the most important endeavors in my life, and there is a 2% chance that that person is a crook, I would feel a bit uneasy. If 2% of pilots were incompetent, I doubt many people would fly.
But my guess is that the problems are worse than the numbers reveal. For one thing, it’s not easy to get suspended or expelled from the practice of law. I once filed a bar complaint against an attorney for lying to my client, stealing his money, and getting him ordered deported (the complaint was a required part of the process to get the case reopened). We had all sorts of documentation proving this attorney’s incompetence and maliciousness. The Bar Association found that she had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct, but declined to punish her because there were “special circumstances.” Ironically, the “special circumstances” were that she had already been punished for destroying the cases of two other people. So, in other words, she was saved from punishment by her own prior bad acts. It’s ridiculous, but it helps illustrate how difficult it is to get suspended. Nevertheless, 400 of my fellow immigration attorneys have managed to do so.
Another problem is that immigrants–particularly illegal immigrants–are unlikely to report bad attorneys. Many immigrants do not speak English and are not familiar with their rights. They do not know how to report attorneys. Also, they might be afraid to report attorneys.
For these reasons, my guess is that the 400 attorneys on the EOIR list represents only a fraction of the incompetent and/or dishonest immigration attorneys who are practicing law today.
Of course, the vast majority of immigration attorneys are caring, competent, and honest. Most (if not all) attorneys I know have worked long hours for little or no pay to help clients in need. Immigration law is usually not the most lucrative field, and most attorneys practice in this area because we want to help people fleeing persecution or reuniting with family or making a better life. I do think we have a responsibility to report bad conduct when we see it, and to encourage people who have been harmed to file complaints where appropriate. Bar associations should also be more aggressive in enforcing the rules. In this way, we can protect our clients and improve the profession.