ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A federal judge in Seattle has handed immigration advocates a small but potentially significant legal victory in a case about whether children who face deportation should be entitled to a government-paid lawyer. The case involves just a handful of child plaintiffs, but as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, advocates hope it will ultimately include tens of thousands of minors fighting to remain in this country.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The lead plaintiffs are three siblings who came to the United States illegally after witnessing their father's murder by gang members in El Salvador. Their suit, brought by the ACLU and other immigration advocates, argues that the minors are being rushed through deportation hearings. They say constitutional claims of due process require that the children be provided with court-appointed lawyers; otherwise they can't get a fair hearing. The government moved to dismiss the case. But in a 39-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly said that the children's constitutional due process right to counsel claim has merit and deserves an answer. Matt Adams is a director of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project.
MATT ADAMS: The judge is saying that the kids deserve an opportunity to present that question to the court. The kids should have the right to at least have the court consider whether they're getting a fair hearing.
GONZALES: In a statement, the Justice Department says the law is clear that immigrants do not have the right to counsel at government expense. The statement adds that as a matter of policy, the department prefers that children in deportation hearings have lawyers, and it called on Congress to pony up the money to make that happen. Immigration restriction to say the ruling is an outrage. Mark Krikorian is executive director of the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies.
MARK KRIKORIAN: It is part of the agenda of the anti-borders folks to a little by little create a right to taxpayer-funded lawyers for everyone the government wants to deport.
GONZALES: Lawyers for the minors say their next step is to convince the judge to grant a national class-action claim that would cover not only the handful of kids named in the suit, but tens of thousands more children facing deportation. No date has been set for that issue. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.
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