Children Representing Themselves in Immigration Court

By Hubert Plummer posted 07-10-2018 12:19 PM


As we discussed in the last blog post, families have been getting separated at the borders and that leaves children without parents or other adults who can care for them.  It also means that those children are all alone dealing with the immigration proceedings.

When a person enters the country illegally they are liable to arrest and deportation, but that requires the decision of an immigration judge.  The person can apply for asylum and then they are entitled to stay in the US while the application is being processed.

But what if you are a child, a one year old who not only doesn’t speak English, probably doesn’t speak any language yet?  How about a 5 or 10 year old.  Can they be expected to understand what is happening to them when they don’t have an adult with them? When they have been stripped from their families?  They probably don’t speak English, probably don’t know why the family fled their home and can’t communicate the danger they face to a judge.

You might think they are entitled to a lawyer, well you’d be mistaken.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that it is not established law that alien minors are categorically entitled to government-funded, court-appointed counsel.[i]  Since immigration issues are considered civil and not criminal, adults are also not entitled to a government provided attorney.

So, when anyone, including a minor, appears before an immigration judge, they are not entitled to a lawyer.  If they know better and have enough money they can hire one.  There are charities like the ACLU and other advocacy groups that do their best, but they just don’t have the resources.

This leads to stories like the one about the 3 year old climbing up on the desk during the child’s hearing.[ii] That child had a lawyer provided by the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles.  Many children are not so lucky.[iii]

The situation is absurd, attorney Laura Barrera talks about her 5 year old client who can only help her case by drawing pictures with crayons of the gang members who wait outside her school.[iv][v]

These are children, left alone, ripped from their families facing the impenetrable, unfeeling force of the United States government.  They have committed no crimes.  They are in the United States and are entitled to due process and equal protection as provided by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. They are entitled to present their case for asylum, yet they are denied effective assistance.  We can do better.






The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission.  It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.