Courtrooms are made to reflect the power of the law and of the state – the stern guy in a long dark robe sitting behind a high desk, the flags floating behind him, the secretaries flanking him, the big police officers lurking everywhere.
Courtrooms are often controlled chaos – the lawyers flitting around talking to clients, the clerks milling in and out of side doors, the public flowing in from the back to fill the gallery, the underlying feel of tension.
Into this extraordinarily busy and confusing milieu, throw a youngster, and have him or her looking up – alone – at a judge, while being told that he or she must return to a place where crime and poverty and death prevail.
On January 29, 2018, in a case concerning a young fellow named CJ (alias), the U.S. Ninth Circuit Courts ruled that children who enter the country illegally with their parents have no right to a government-appointed lawyer in immigration court.
The ruling held that neither the Due Process Clause of the Constitution nor the Immigration & Nationality Act creates a categorical right to court-appointed counsel. The court relied on a federal case that held that since immigration court proceedings are considered civil cases rather than criminal, there is no constitutional right to an attorney.
The consequence of this ruling is that experienced and seasoned prosecutors are pitted against young and helpless children in court. The children don't stand a chance. These hearings are incredibly complex and some judges even have difficulty explaining the proceedings to adults, let alone to children. Nationwide, there are thousands of children in immigration courts. The end result may very well be the mass deportation of bewildered youngsters.
CJ's Story – Join or Die
CJ filed for asylum when he was 13, claiming that he feared persecution because a gang from Honduras was trying to recruit him. When he resisted the gang, his life was threatened. The boy came to the U.S. with his mother and ultimately appeared in immigration court without an attorney. Denied a stay of deportation, the gangsters are probably at CJ now – to join or die.
Imagine living in a town that is controlled by a bunch of drug-dealing murderers. The drug and gang wars in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are forcing kids and their families to flee their homes to survive. As they arrive in large numbers, many of them will land in immigration courts around the country – without any adequate representation.
“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me ...”
According to Stanford University Immigration Clinic, the present government believes that recent arrivals of children and their families are not entitled to any immigration relief. Yet, with a little bit of legal help, studies have shown that many recent arrivals would legally qualify for refugee status, or some type of special status, especially for certain vulnerable juveniles.
Also, Stanford indicates that many low-cost or non-profit immigration organizations are operating at capacity and unable to take many new cases in the wake of the ruling. Many people who are in removal or deportation proceedings are pretty much destitute and cannot afford an attorney. Courts often have to ask pro bono attorneys to represent them. The phones at my office are already jammed with people requesting low or free legal services.
This ruling may mean that thousands of children will have to represent themselves in immigration courts. Despite the recent ruling, it seems the Department of Justice has been deporting kids without benefit of attorney since 2014, according to Immigration Rights Advocates. The rule of law is essential, but there must be some compassion behind the law.
Help on the Way?
Despite the recent ruling facing young immigrants today, there is a current bill in Congress called "Fair-Day-in-Court-for-Kids-Act" according to Human Rights Watch. The act that would mandate court-appointed counsel for children, no matter the charge, civil or criminal.
With only kids to represent themselves in Immigration Courts, there will be mass deportations, sending these children back to the violence and the drugs and the gangs they are running from. This is tantamount to the U.S. delivering sentences of gang-slavery or gang-death on a massive scale. The undefended youngsters seem to be the criminals here.
About the author: Johnson Lazaro and Lazaro Law Group has been practicing law for over 22 years.
Lazaro Law Group, Managing Attorney