Legal advocacy groups have filed suit against the federal government on behalf of child migrants, alleging that the government is violating their constitutional due process rights by not providing them with legal counsel during deportation hearings.
The class-action lawsuit was filed in Seattle Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council, Public Counsel and other legal groups. Its goal: to get the federal government to provide minors in deportation hearings with attorneys.
In general, neither adults nor children in immigration court have a right to government-provided legal counsel. The complaint argues that this puts minors at special disadvantage.
“Children are in a unique position, uniquely unable to articulate their claims before the court, to face figures of authority in the courtroom, to represent themselves against a trained government attorney," said Kristen Jackson, an attorney with Public Counsel in Los Angeles. "Those unique vulnerabilities require that children have a legal representative in their proceedings.”
The are exceptions to the rule: Last year, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that immigrant detainees who can't represent themselves due to mental illness must be provided with a lawyer.
The Obama administration recently announced a $2 million program to pay attorneys and paralegals willing to represent migrant children and teens, but this isn't enough, advocates say.
Jackson says one goal is convince the government that vulnerable migrant children’s due process rights, along with their right to a fair hearing under immigration law, are being violated when they are forced to face a deportation hearing solo.
Both adults and children may provide their own counsel for immigration hearings, but it’s tough for immigrants with scant resources, and pro-bono providers are limited. One of the right named plantiffs is the 14-year-old daughter of Juan Guerrero Diaz, a Los Angeles cab driver from El Salvador who is in the United States on temporary protected status.
“I’ve tried, I’ve looked for legal organizations so they can help me, but since they all have a waiting list, in the end, I was kind of losing hope,'" Guerrero Diaz said, "because I couldn’t find anyone to legally represent us.”
He said his daughter came to the U.S. along with two older sisters and an aunt earlier this year, fleeing extortion and physical threats from gangs in their neighborhood. They joined Guerrero and his wife in Los Angeles.
While some of the plaintiffs have been in the U.S. for years, others are part of the recent wave of child migrants arriving from Central America - so far, more than 50,000 children and teens have arrived since October, double the number that arrived a year earlier.
The legal groups say the child migrant crisis is all the more reason to address how these kids will be represented. A Homeland Security official contacted declined to comment on the case.
Read the complaint here.