Class-action suit seeks lawyers for minors facing deportation

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Three children who witnessed the killing of their father in El Salvador left the violence seeking refuge in the United States. They now face deportation hearings, and expect to go to court without a lawyer.

A 15-year-old boy abandoned and abused in Guatemala came alone to the United States. He too faces a deportation hearing without a lawyer.

As does a 17-year-old boy who fled gang violence and recruitment in Guatemala to live with his dad in Los Angeles.

These minors are among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit charging the federal government with failure to provide thousands of children with legal representation in deportation hearings.

The American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Council, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Public Counsel and K&L Gates LLP filed the lawsuit earlier this month, at the same time a surge of tens of thousands of minors coming to the southern border became a central issue in the U.S. capital and in midterm elections across the country.

The plaintiffs came to the United States from Mexico and Central America. Some were seeking refuge from the violence in their homelands and all of them are scheduled for deportation hearings this summer but lack legal representation.

“If we believe in due process for children in our country, then we cannot abandon them when they face deportation in our immigration courts,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “The government pays for a trained prosecutor to advocate for the deportation of every child. It is patently unfair to force children to defend themselves alone.”

The Obama administration recently announced a limited program to provide legal assistance to some youth facing deportation hearings, but the attorneys in the case say the proposal does not come close to meeting the need.

“Each day, we are contacted by children in desperate need of lawyers to advocate for them in their deportation proceedings,” said Kristen Jackson, a senior staff attorney with Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that works with immigrant children.

She said pro bono efforts have been valiant, but they cannot meet the need.

The complaint charges the U.S. government with violating the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause and the Immigration and Nationality Act’s provisions requiring a “full and fair hearing” before an immigration judge. 

It seeks to require the government to provide children with representation in their hearings.

“Requiring children to fight against deportation without a lawyer is incompatible with American values of due process and justice for all,” said Beth Werlin, deputy legal director for the American Immigration Council.

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