At immigration court hearings, young children clutching teddy bears for comfort have been known to face off against trained government lawyers to prove that they deserve a chance to stay in the country. As with all immigrants appearing before judges, these children are not entitled to a public defender — and though some children are lucky enough to obtain pro bono lawyers, only about one-third are represented by counsel.
That’s why Democratic senators are hoping to fill the void in legal representation by introducing the “Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016,” a bill that aims to expand legal access for asylum-seeking immigrants and children in deportation proceedings.
“We know that having a competent attorney can make the difference between life and death,” Joanne Lin, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel, said in a press statement. “The ACLU urges Congress to swiftly pass this measure to ensure due process and fairness for children and families fleeing persecution and brutal violence.”
The bill would require the appointment of legal counsel for unaccompanied children, victims of torture, and people with disabilities. It would also provide legal counsel to immigrants both released into the custody of families or in detention centers.
The legislation comes amid a series of federal immigration operations around the country that allow authorities to arrest and prioritize the deportation proceedings of Central American women and children. More than 100 immigrants have been arrested in those raids so far this year, and most of them have been deported.
As it stands, asylum-seeking children are currently on the so-called “rocket docket” where they must appear before a judge within 21 days. Many lawyers and advocacy groups have complained that this isn’t enough time to represent children, particularly because they need to gather evidence and prepare their clients. In a recent internal Department of Justice (DOJ) memo sent to immigration judges, unaccompanied children will now have their initial hearing no earlier than 30 days to give lawyers slightly more time.
Children with lawyers are five times more likely to win asylum, a statistic that the bill sponsors are hoping to bolster with more legal representation.
“We want to ensure that unaccompanied minors and vulnerable individuals have appointed counsel,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said on a press conference call on Thursday. “The fact is that children cannot afford to hire an attorney, very often can’t find pro bono counsel, are forced to navigate a complex, adversary system on their own, while the government is always represented by well-qualified, trained attorneys.”
There’s a lot on the line for these children, who may end up deported back to some of the most dangerous countries in the world if they don’t secure asylum. In an Univision op-ed, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), an original sponsor of the bill, pointed out that many Central Americans asylum-seekers “have been denied the opportunity to make their case before a judge with legal representation, hurting their chances of receiving asylum and possibly resulting in death by deportation.”
Many immigrant rights groups were enthusiastic about the measure, stating that it would drastically improve the outcome for many children who may likely qualify as refugees in the United States.
“Leaders in the U.S. Senate today took an important first step to acknowledge that this is a refugee crisis, not a border security issue, and that children and families coming to the U.S. from Central America deserve a fair shot at asylum,” Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus Campaign for Children said in a press statement.
It’s unclear whether the bill would gain any traction in the Republican-controlled congress. Menendez acknowledged that the bill will likely receive “strong resistance from Republicans,” but that he hoped that the bill could be attached to “must-pass” legislation.