Many unaccompanied minors in deportation hearings do not have legal representation, and a new bill sponsored by Democratic senators proposes to change this. The bill, called “Fair Day in Court for Kids Act,” led by Senators Harry Reid, Bob Menendez, Patrick Leahy, Patty Murray, and Dick Durbin, proposes to ensure that children in immigration proceedings have access to lawyers, legal orientation programs, and post-release services. It also applies to "vulnerable individuals," defined as people with a disability or victims of abuse, torture, or violence.
In a speech on the Senator floor introducing the bill, Senator Reid discussed the importance of dealing with the humanitarian crisis from Central America, noting that thousands of migrants, mainly women and children, have fled the region to escape extreme violence, human trafficking, drug trafficking, sexual assaults, and widespread corruption and have come to the US seeking asylum. He said:
These refugees should have help in making their asylum request. And that means that they need a lawyer. Under current U.S. law, there is no right to appointed counsel in non-criminal immigration removal proceedings, even if the person in question is a child. Imagine that. These children, who don’t speak English and are in a new country, are unreasonably expected to represent themselves in a court of law?
Having legal representation can prove critical for women and children in deportation proceedings, as a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that children were allowed to remain in the US in seventy-three percent of cases in which they had representation, according to data from fiscal years 2012 to 2014. Children without representation were only allowed to stay in fifteen percent of cases. "Trying to win asylum without a lawyer is like playing Russian roulette," Gregory Chen, Director of Advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), said on a call with media.
While some groups, including Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) help provide attorneys for children in deportation proceedings, and the Justice Department provided grants in 2014 for attorneys to assist, currently only about a third of minors are going through the immigration process with legal counsel, according to the latest data. "It's just so patently unfair to put these kids through this process unless they have some help," Wendy Young, president of KIND, told the Huffington Post. For deportees returned to the highly dangerous Central American region, a Guardian report found many of them including minors were killed after their return to their home countries.
The legislation will likely face opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress. In a congressional hearing earlier this month, several Republican panel members blamed President Obama’s lax immigration policies for attracting the surge of migrants and children from Central America. Congressman Trey Gowdy said that migrant children are told that once in the US they should find an immigration officer and claim asylum, and he charged the Obama administration with not conducting adequate background checks on the people who sponsor the newly-arrived children, leading to their possible exploitation, he asserted.