For Kids In Immigration Court, Legal Counsel Is Catch As Catch Can Advocacy groups have sued the federal government for not providing lawyers to children in deportation proceedings. Unlike criminal courts, these courts don't provide representation for defendants.


For Kids In Immigration Court, Legal Counsel Is Catch As Catch Can

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Today, the ACLU and other groups sued the federal government. They claim the government has failed to provide legal representation to immigrant children in deportation proceedings. The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight immigrants, ages 10 to 17. But the complaint applies to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have illegally crossed the Southwest border in recent years. Well, in order to see the problem up close, NPR's John Burnett spent a day in immigration court.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The U.S. immigration courts in San Antonio are located in a featureless, briggin-glass office building on the western edge of downtown. On this day, a few protesters, sweating in the South Texas sun, are walking back and forth on the sidewalk.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: No deportation without legal representation.

BURNETT: The situation they're protesting is real. In this country immigration courts, unlike criminal courts, do not provide lawyers for immigrants who are fighting deportation, which leads to the remarkable scene that I witnessed in courtroom number 4. Immigration judges don't allow recorders, so I'll describe it. In the small courtroom at the bench sits Judge Anibal Martinez who presides over the weekly juvenile immigration docket in San Antonio. At the table to his right sits a stern lawyer from the Department of Homeland Security, which seeks to remove children who've crossed the border illegally. And at the table on his left sits a pudgy, 9-year-old girl named Berta Mejia Martinez from Honduras. She wears a sparkly butterfly shirt and her flip-flops don't even touch the blue carpeted floor. At the moment, young Berta is representing herself in U.S. immigration court, though an adult family friend who speaks English accompanies her. Judge Martinez tells Berta, in his booming judicial voice, that he is postponing her hearing until late August to give her more time to get an attorney. She smiles bashfully. When he adjourns her case, Berta (PH) trots happily out of the courtroom, seemingly unaware that she is, in the language of the court, a deportable alien. Downstairs in the lobby, I sit on a bench with Jonathan Ryan. He is a lawyer who runs a San Antonio nonprofit called RAICES that represents immigrants.

JONATHAN RYAN: You've got a very highly-paid, well-trained prosecutor. You've got a highly-paid well-trained judge and a child. If we are going to put these children through this gauntlet, appoint them a lawyer.

BURNETT: Immigrant advocates generally agree that more than half of all unaccompanied children in deportation proceedings do not have legal counsel. And with more than 50,000 newly arrived kids in the past nine months seeking green cards, that number is sure to balloon. Having a lawyer makes a difference. Court records show that asylum-seekers with an attorney are ordered deported at a much lower rate than those who go it alone through U.S. immigration laws, which have been compared to IRS rules in their complexity. Jonathan Ryan claims having an attorney can also speed up the process and lead to fewer delays.

RYAN: It makes the court process more - not just more efficient but more fair when both parties are represented.

BURNETT: The way the system works now, there's a mad scramble among immigration attorneys to offer pro bono help to as many youths in the process as possible. The government is not deaf to the problem. The Executive Office of Immigration Review, the formal name for the immigration court system, funds several programs designed to help immigrant kids find a lawyer - among them, Justice AmeriCorps, the Legal Orientation Program and the Recognition and Accreditation Program. As a spokesman for the office declined comment for this report. But the fact remains, the search for legal counsel in juvenile cases is essentially catch-as-catch-can. And that's why the ACLU filed this lawsuit against immigration system today. Ahilan Arulanantham, a senior ACLU attorney, says this of the government's attempts to bring fairness to the courtroom.

AHILAN ARULANANTHAM: They're trying. But on the other hand, the government pays for a lawyer in every case to prosecute the child, then they really should also be willing to spend the resources needed to represent children on the other side.

BURNETT: The hard reality is that the immigration court system is perennially underfunded. It just came off of a three-year hiring freeze and it's trying to find judges to backfill 200 empty positions. Bruce Solow, a retired immigration judge in Miami, had this reaction to today's lawsuit.

BRUCE SOLOW: Do I think it's a good idea that children have lawyers? Absolutely - I mean, the question is who's going to fund it. Is Congress going to fund it? Is the Department of Justice going to fund it?

BURNETT: The Obama administration's recent request for emergency funding to handle the wave of immigrants on the border includes $45 million for 40 additional immigration judge teams and $15 million for direct legal representation to children. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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