Like taking candy from a baby: It’s Children Against Federal Lawyers in Immigration Court
The United States is losing its way. Fernanda Santos reports in the NY Times:
After a long, scary trek through three countries to escape the gang violence in El Salvador, a 15-year-old boy found himself scared again a few months back, this time in a federal immigration court here. There was an immigration judge in front of him and a federal prosecutor to his right. But there was no one helping him understand the charges against him.
“I was afraid I was going to make a mistake,” the boy said in Spanish from his uncle’s living room, in a modest cinder-block house on the south side of this city. “When the judge asked me questions, I just shook my head yes and no. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.”
Every week in immigration courts around the country, thousands of children act as their own lawyers, pleading for asylum or other type of relief in a legal system they do not understand.
Suspected killers, kidnappers and others facing federal felony charges, no matter their ages, are entitled to court-appointed lawyers if they cannot afford them. But children accused of violating immigration laws, a civil offense, do not have the same right. In immigration court, people face charges from the government, but the government has no obligation to provide lawyers for poor children and adults, as it does in criminal cases, legal experts say.
Having a lawyer makes a difference. Between October 2004 and June of this year, more than half the children who did not have lawyers were deported. Only one in 10 children who had legal representation were sent back, according to federal data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group connected to Syracuse University.
“We have looked for any legal system in the United States where children are required to represent themselves against a government lawyer — child welfare proceedings, juvenile delinquency proceedings. We have not yet found one, and the government hasn’t found one either,” Stephen Kang, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Right Project, said in an interview.
A class-action lawsuit, filed by the A.C.L.U. and other civil rights organizations, is trying to change that.
In a brief filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth District, where the federal government is contesting the court’s authority to hear the case, Justice Department lawyers insisted that “aliens in civil administrative removal proceedings have the privilege of being represented by retained counsel, but do not possess either a constitutional or statutory right to appointed counsel at taxpayer expense.” . . .