Facing Deportation: Are Kids Entitled To An Attorney?

Sep 3, 2014

This week in Seattle, a 10-year-old boy is scheduled to appear in immigration court along with his teenage brother and sister. The siblings fled to the United States to escape violence after gang members in El Salvador killed their father. Now they all face deportation, but no lawyer will represent them in court.

Every year, thousands of children in the U.S. face deportation hearings on their own, without an attorney. In Seattle Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas S. Zilly heard arguments on a potentially nationwide lawsuit that calls foul on this situation. 

The case pivots on the central question of whether minors, alone in court, can get a fair hearing if they have no legal right to an attorney.  The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the ACLU of California are among the groups that filed the lawsuit in July.

Matt Adams, attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said children in court without an attorney rarely win their cases.

"Every child is going up against an attorney from the Department of Homeland Security," Adams said. "It’s a very adversarial and complex legal system. It’s absurd to think that a child on his own is able to marshal his case, to present the legal theory and the necessary facts to identify why it is they have a right to remain in this country.”

Adams said national statistics show nearly 80 percent of children in court with an attorney successfully fight their deportation orders.

The lawsuit aims to force the government to provide attorneys for all minors facing deportation proceedings. Judge Zilly said he would rule at a later date about whether to certify the case as a nationwide class-action suit.

During Wednesday’s hearing, government lawyers argued this change would require a lot more attorneys and a lot more funding.  Leon Fresco, deputy assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, warned this obligation would effectively halt all deportation proceedings against children and likely create a magnet for more young immigrants to enter the country illegally.

"It sends the message to all kids that we won't remove you," Fresco said.

This case is still at an early stage, and Judge Zilly acknowledged the stakes are high, so it could take some time to sort through it.