The American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant-rights groups are suing the federal government in a bid to get legal representation for the thousands of Central American migrant children who've been arriving at the United States' southern border.
"In court, the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") will be represented by a trained lawyer who will argue for the child's deportation," the lawsuit states. "But 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. Each child has attempted to find representation through pro bono legal service providers, but none of them have found anyone with the resources to take on their cases. Absent this Court's intervention, these children will be forced to defend themselves pro se under the immigration laws - a legal regime that, as the courts have recognized, rivals the Internal Revenue Code in its complexity."
The American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Council, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Public Counsel, and the law firm K&L Gates LLP filed the lawsuit on behalf of eight such children, each of whom facing circumstances that could possibly prevent their deportation.
The lawsuit cites several parts of immigration law that could allow these eight children to stay, including asylum claims, certain visa statuses, and other designations outlined in law.
For example, three of the children fled El Salvador due to extreme gang violence, which included witnessing the murder of their father. According to the lawsuit:
J.E.F.M. is a 10-year-old boy, and a native and citizen of El Salvador. He presently resides in Washington State. He is the youngest of four children born to his parents. His father was a former gang member, who then converted to Christianity and later became a pastor. J.E.F.M.'s mother was also a pastor. His parents met at church and together they started a rehabilitation center for people leaving gangs. Gang members retaliated against the center for housing young people trying to leave the gangs. First, they warned J.E.F.M.'s parents to stop assisting former gang members. Then they killed J.E.F.M.'s cousin. Two weeks later, gang members murdered J.E.F.M.'s father in the street in front of their house, while J.E.F.M. and his siblings watched. J.E.F.M.'s mother continued to be threatened after this incident, so she fled the country, leaving her children with their grandmother.
Approximately seven years later, the children also became targets of gang members in El Salvador. Gang members demanded that the children join and threatened them with harm if they did not. Rather than enter the gang, J.E.F.M. fled with his two older siblings. At the time he was only nine years old.
J.E.F.M. and his two siblings entered the United States around July 2013, were apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection ("CBP"), and then placed in the custody of [the Office of Refugee Resettlement]. They were released to a family member fifteen days later. They have been residing in Washington State since their release. J.E.F.M. has a removal hearing in September 2014, but has no legal representation in his immigration case because he has no resources to hire private counsel and the legal service providers in the Seattle area are stretched well beyond capacity to take on the cases of children in removal proceedings. J.E.F.M. appears by his next friend, Bob Ekblad. Mr. Ekblad is a minister who has worked closely with J.E.F.M. and his family; he is familiar with J.E.F.M.'s immigration case and is truly dedicated to his best interests in this case.
This boy's teenage brother and sister are also represented in this lawsuit.
Other kids represented include victims of gang violence or other crimes, one kid now living in the U.S. with his permanent resident father, and other children in the country with possible claims to prevent their deportation.
The ACLU and other groups say that children certainly can't represent themselves in these proceedings, and be expected to argue aspects of immigration law.
"If we believe in due process for children in our country, then we cannot abandon them when they face deportation in our immigration courts," ACLU staff attorney Ahilan Arulanantham says in a statement. "The government pays for a trained prosecutor to advocate for the deportation of every child. It is patently unfair to force children to defend themselves alone."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is attempting to speed up the proceedings to deport the children who have arrived in the sudden influx at the border.
Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.