People who end up in immigration courts aren't afforded the same rights as defendants in state and federal courts. The Department of Justice is contesting a lawsuit filed against it, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, regarding the lack of right to counsel for juveniles in immigration courts. The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union as well as immigrant rights groups on behalf of 14 juveniles (several under 5 years old.)
The plaintiffs contend that the right to counsel in immigration courts is guaranteed by the Constitution, and the government must provide attorneys for children who can't afford them. The DOJ has argued that this right to government-provided counsel for those in immigration courts is not covered in the Constitution, and it would cause "potentially enormous taxpayer expense."
Children Are Up Against Powerful Forces in Immigration Courts
Kids find themselves in immigration court for things like allegedly overstaying their visas or entering the country illegally. They are going up against DHS attorneys and judges with only the assistance of an interpreter, which most need.
The plaintiffs argue that it's too easy for a judge to ask questions in such a way that can cause children to speak against their own best interests. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, in arguing for legislation that would require government-appointed counsel for these children, told a story about a 5-year-old girl brought into an immigration court who "was unable to answer any questions that the judge asked her except for the name of her doll."
Fewer Than Half of Kids in Immigration Courts Have Attorneys
Some juveniles receive the assistance of attorneys provided by pro bono organizations and, in some cases, with the DOJ's help. However, according to the DOJ's own data, only about 42 percent of unaccompanied children in immigration courts between July 2014 and December 2015 had an attorney. In many cases, as those supporting changes to the law point out, these children have come to the U.S. to escape violence and even torture.
While this case involves particularly vulnerable kids, anyone who has to go to court to face immigration-related charges or deportation proceedings should retain an experienced immigration attorney. It's essential to have someone who will protect your rights, present your case and help you understand your legal options.
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