This past summer, Donald Trump’s administration was met with public backlash after announcing a zero-tolerance policy that separated migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. That policy was later reversed after immense pressure from activists, politicians and the general public. But hundreds of children are still not reunited with their parents, with some being forced to represent themselves in immigration court hearings.
Although several news outlets have reported on these heartbreaking hearings since the announcement of the family separation plan, the problem itself hasn’t gone away. Migrant children are still not guaranteed representation in court hearings. A Ninth Circuit panel’s refusal to hear a case regarding legal representation for migrant kids earlier this month ensured that these children won’t be given rightful representation anytime soon. The unjust consequences of this ruling and the broken system in our immigration courts need to be addressed for the sake of thousands of lives.
The concept of an undocumented minor having to represent themself in immigration court hearings is nothing new. Since the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border increased from around 38,000 in 2013 to 68,000 in 2014, several immigration judges have had to hear the cases of these children with only an interpreter and caretaker to aid them in court. There are accounts of children as young as 1 year old having to represent themselves, crying during their cases and having difficulty understanding what is happening to them. Attorneys that represent migrant children also often face difficulty in building a relationship with their clients and getting them to understand how immigration proceedings work. How does our immigration system expect toddlers who can barely walk or speak a language — let alone English — to understand the proceedings of an immigration court?
Arguments in favor of the Ninth Circuit’s refusal to hear the case include a deposition from 2016 by Judge Jack Weil, in which he justified migrant children having to represent themselves by stating that “I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it.”
But when looking at the data, this statement doesn’t seem to hold much truth. According to The Atlantic, the limited amount of free legal resources leave only one-fourth of unaccompanied migrant children with legal representation by an attorney. As of 2014, more than 80 percent of unrepresented children were deported. In comparison, only 12 percent of those with representation were deported. Courthouses in some cities such as New York have provided immigrants with federal lawyers in the past, resulting in a massive increase of successful cases. The stark difference in these results clearly indicate that so many more of these children have valid reasons to stay in the United States, but simply lack legal resources that should be accessible to them.
According to data from the Justice Department, about 67 percent of all asylum cases this year have been provided with legal representation. But without guaranteeing all immigrants legal help, our country is turning away refugees that otherwise would have every right to be able to live in the U.S.
The longer our government goes without addressing this problem, the more likely it is to only get worse. The problem of family separation still hasn’t been resolved — an unknown number of children are still being separated at the border and are unaccounted for due to faulty data — and the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border has shown to have increased since last year. Trump’s nominee to be the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement is also open to the idea of separating migrant families again, which could mean that even more unaccompanied minors will be entering the U.S. immigration system alone. By mistreating the most vulnerable and threatened groups of migrants coming into the U.S., our government is sending a clear message of intolerance and injustice, one that we must continue to rebuke if we truly deserve to call ourselves a land of the free.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 26 print edition.
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Email Melanie Pineda at [email protected]