Class Action Lawsuit Aims To Win Legal Representation For Unaccompanied Minors

A volunteer brings water, food, and diapers to Central-American women and children dropped off at the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix, Arizona. CREDIT: VALERIA FERNÁNDEZ/ AP
A volunteer brings water, food, and diapers to Central-American women and children dropped off at the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix, Arizona. CREDIT: VALERIA FERNÁNDEZ/ AP

Kids who cross the border alone often face an immigration judge alone during their deportation proceedings. That’s because courts have no obligation to fund or appoint lawyers for them. Five advocacy groups are hoping to change their situations with a class-action lawsuit filed against the government on Wednesday. The groups want to force the government to provide all unrepresented children with legal representation during deportation hearings.

According to the lawsuit, all eight children, ranging between ten years old and 17, have sought out pro-bono legal services, but were unable to find anyone with the resources to take on their cases. The lawsuit points out that the government has legal representation in each case. The lawsuit charged, “No lawyer will stand with the child. Each will be required to respond to the charges against him or her, and, in theory, will be afforded an opportunity to make legal arguments and present evidence on his or her own behalf. But in reality those rights will be meaningless because children are not competent to exercise them.”

Among the eight plaintiffs on the class-action lawsuit who are scheduled for deportation proceedings include a 13-year-old Salvadoran boy and his two siblings who fled after seeing their father killed and a 16-year-old Honduran boy whose biological father was disabled after a machete attack and whose half-brothers’ father was kidnapped and murdered.

The lawsuit charges that the federal government is violating the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the Immigration and Nationality Act’s provisions that require a “full and fair hearing” before an immigration judge. The groups noted that in other cases, the Supreme Court found that the due process clause requires that children receive the right to a full and fair removal hearing, but “just as in juvenile delinquency proceedings, children cannot receive that fair hearing without legal representation.”

Most of the 52,000 unaccompanied child refugees apprehended at the border this year, come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — three Central American countries that are facing increasing violence. Many of these children are under the age of ten and are too young to read, or write and can’t represent themselves in court. The groups pointed out that the $3.7 billion emergency allocation that President Obama just requested from Congress would provide funding to hire more immigration judges, but would not be not enough to cover the shortfall of legal representation. The emergency funds provide $15 million for legal representation for these unaccompanied children, but by some estimates, it’s only enough to help 10,000 children. Similarly, the Department of Justice has moved to provide about 100 lawyers and paralegals to these children.

A study by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense found that children are treated as “adults in miniature” in court and that in one case, a child was unable to adequately convey to the judge how he had received death threats at school by gang members. Children who are fortunate enough to have representation are nine times more likely to win their cases, but only seven percent of those placed in federal custody between 2007 and 2009 won their cases.