A coalition of civil rights groups filed a nationwide class-action suit Wednesday alleging that putting children into immigration court without counsel violates both constitutional due-process rights and immigration law.
The plaintiffs in the suit filed in Seattle are eight children aged 10 to 17 who have resided in the United States for various lengths of time and are scheduled to appear in court, unrepresented, for deportation proceedings in the near future.
Two of the minors, 13-year-old and 15-year-old Seattle siblings, saw their father gunned down by gangsters who objected to the father’s anti-gang rehabilitation center in El Salvador, according to the suit.
Typically, “in court, the Department of Homeland Security will be represented by a trained lawyer who will argue for the child’s deportation.”
“On the other side of the courtroom, no lawyer will stand with the child,” says the suit, which was filed against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and other federal officials.
Neither adults nor children have an established right to appointment of legal counsel in immigration proceedings. But lawyers on behalf of these children argue that they are nonetheless protected by due process and long-standing immigration law establishing the right to a fair hearing. A national network of pro bono attorneys has traditionally tried to pick up the slack in patchwork fashion.
The suit was filed by Public Counsel, a large nonprofit, public-interest law firm; the American Civil Liberties Union; the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C.; K&L Gates, a law firm in Washington, D.C.; and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle.
In response to the suit, Andrew S. Muñoz, public affairs officer for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, said: “As a matter of policy, ICE doesn’t comment on pending litigation.”
A Justice Department spokesperson said the complaint was being reviewed, and declined to comment further. Holder himself has actually spoken out in favor of young children benefitting from counsel in immigration court.
Lawyers said the suit—one of the plaintiffs is originally from Mexico—was in the works before officials began noticing a dramatic surge this spring of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran children turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents along the Texas-Mexico border. The network of pro bono attorneys willing to represent minors was already stretched thin before the numbers of children began to surge, attorneys for the children said.
Some of the children in the lawsuit have already appeared in court multiple times without lawyers.
“The plight of these (plaintiff) children is not unique,” argues the suit, because thousands of minors are in court each year to face the “life-altering” possibility of deportation.
Without competent legal representation—and a professional who understands legal complexities—children’s established right to present evidence becomes “meaningless,” the suit argues.