An appeals court has ruled that children who migrate to the United States with their parents without permission do not have the right to a government-appointed lawyer in U.S. immigration courts. The judges rejected a claim by the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrant groups that children have a constitutional due process right to a free attorney. In the ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said “A system already exists to give the children a fair hearing, and requiring the government to provide free attorneys would be an expense that would “strain an already overextended immigration system.”
The plaintiffs said many of the thousands of children the government seeks to deport each year appear before judges without a lawyer because they can’t afford one or find one to take their cases for free. The result is an unfair process that pits children with no ability to navigate complex legal issues against seasoned government attorneys, the groups say.
The 9th Circuit considered a case filed by a 13-year-old boy identified only as “C.J.” who fled Honduras with his mother after facing death threats, including a gun to his head, when he refused to join a gang. C.J. testified in immigration court that he rebuffed recruitment attempts from the Maras gang three times, and eventually they held a gun to his head and threatened to kill his mother, aunt and uncles.
They fled Honduras, arriving in the U.S. in 2014 and the boy was placed in deportation proceedings three months later. An immigration judge told the boy’s mother he had a right to an attorney, but she said she did not have money, according to the court ruling. The case went forward without an attorney, and the judge rejected the boy’s asylum application. The judge said C.J. failed to present evidence that he had been persecuted, or feared persecution if he returned to Honduras, a requirement to establish eligibility for asylum.
The boy was appealing the ruling and sought a free court-appointed attorney for himself and other immigrant children who face deportation hearings. The Ninth Circuit upheld the Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision finding C.J.’s due process rights were not violated when he wasn’t given free legal counsel and that the immigration judge had given him a fair hearing. The panel said the immigration judge had delayed the case for over a year so his mother could retain counsel for her son, and also noted that the Department of Homeland Security had given her a list of pro bono attorneys.
The ruling drew critical responses from immigrant rights advocates, who fear it could set off mass deportations against children in similar situations. In response to the ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said, “If permitted to stand, this ruling will result in the deportation of thousands of vulnerable children to some of the most violent places on earth.”
The ruling is another crushing blow for the estimated 1.1 million undocumented children currently living in the United States that fear deportation. Advocates argue that criminal defendants, citizens or not, have the right to government-funded legal representation, yet that right doesn’t extend to immigration cases-leaving helpless children vulnerable.