Children Shouldn’t Be Left Alone in Immigration Court

immigrant childrenEleven-year-old Luisa was too young to apply on her own for a visa to come from Guatemala to the United States where she hoped to be reunited with her mother. But since federal immigration authorities detained her last year in Texas, Luisa has learned that she is apparently not too young to act as her own lawyer as federal immigration officials move to deport her back to her native Guatemala.

Judge Frank M. Travieso urged the children to find pro bono attorneys to help them. Without legal help, he cautioned, they faced an uphill battle. He pulled out a thick black book from behind the bench and informed the children that the book is one of many volumes of immigration case law that a government attorney will rely on to seek their deportation.During a recent hearing in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, Luisa and more than two dozen other children crowded into a small room where the U.S. government has begun deportation hearings against them. Some sat quietly, feet dangling from benches. Others, who spoke indigenous languages and understood little Spanish, looked nervously around struggling to understand the proceedings.

Unfortunately for those children, many will not find an immigration attorney, no matter how hard they try. Unlike in criminal cases, where defendants are provided a lawyer to ensure they receive a fair trial, children are not given a lawyer during their deportation cases, even though in some cases the outcome can be tantamount to a death sentence thousands of children face deportation proceedings without any legal representation. Many have made the treacherous journey alone to the U.S. – from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and are then pushed to undertake another dangerous odyssey through America’s immigration courts. Others have lived here since they were babies, but they also lack the money needed to obtain an immigration attorney.

The kids are expected to mount their own defense, by presenting supporting evidence and arguments to make their case, even though many are too young to read or write, and others are still struggling to overcome the trauma they suffered in their home countries or the journey north. And it doesn’t end there. Prosecutors trained in the complexities of U.S. immigration law and armed with all the resources of the federal government will try to persuade a judge to deport the children.

These children facing life or death consequences in immigration court shouldn’t suffer because there are not enough volunteer attorneys to ensure they receive a fair hearing in court.

A 2011 report from a panel headed by a federal judge found that immigrants with lawyers are five times more likely to win their cases than those who represent themselves. And a recent report by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees concluded that nearly 60 percent of children arriving from Mexico and Central America qualify for some sort of humanitarian protection under international law. The Obama administration has sought to address the crisis at the border and in the courtroom by unveiling a new program that will provide some additional attorneys, while also pushing to fast-track deportations of children.

These children facing life or death consequences in immigration court shouldn’t suffer because there are not enough volunteer attorneys to ensure they receive a fair hearing in court. That’s why the ACLU, along with a coalition of organizations, this week filed a federal lawsuit in Washington State to ensure that these children, the most vulnerable immigrants, receive legal representation in court.

While not all of these children likely have a legal right to remain here, they all deserve due process and legal representation in court.

Sandra Hernandez
ACLU of Southern California

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