Congresswoman: legal representation for undocumented kids

DOWNEY – Congress members Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Downey), Hakeem Jeffries, Karen Bass and Judy Chu held a press conference last week to announce legislation that would provide legal representation to unaccompanied minors and mentally disabled individuals during immigration proceedings “in the wake of the growing humanitarian crisis we confront.” Since approximately 2006, there has been an influx in the amount of unaccompanied minors who cross the southern U.S. border.  In 2011, the number of minors illegally entering the U.S. began to increase significantly.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stated that an estimated 90,000 unaccompanied children will attempt to enter the country by the end of this year.  Most of the minors attempting to cross into the U.S. are fleeing violent environments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- collectively known as the Northern Triangle of Central America.

Drug cartel and gang-related activity are the main cause for most of the violence occurring in this region, officials said.

“Our bill ensures that vulnerable migrant children and mentally disabled individuals in deportation proceedings are afforded the same access to counsel that we provide to dangerous, hardened criminals,” said Roybal-Allard, Downey’s Congressional representative. “Unless we act, many young people who face grave danger in their home countries, and are therefore eligible for relief, will be deported to communities consumed by the violence they struggled to escape.”

“There is a growing humanitarian crisis at the border that worsens exponentially by the day.  It is a serious problem, and it requires a serious response,” said Jeffries, who represents New York’s 8th district..” Some of the children who have come to this country may not have a valid legal basis to remain, but some will.  Yet, it is virtually impossible for a child to assert a valid claim under immigration law in the absence of legal representation.  That is why we have introduced legislation to provide unaccompanied minors involved in immigration proceedings with access to counsel.”

Most undocumented children are not aware of the claims they can make in immigration court, officials said.  The claims are technically available without counsel, but it is “highly unlikely” these children can vindicate their rights absent legal representation, supporters of the bill said.

According to the bill’s authors, there are generally three avenues that can be asserted.  First, a child migrant can claim asylum where a well-founded fear of persecution or worse exists upon return.  Second, there is Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS),  a designation available to certain undocumented immigrants under the age of 21 who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both parents.  SIJS offers children green cards that allow them to live and work permanently in the United States.

Third, a child migrant can seek a U Visa. These visas are available to minors who have been the victims of certain serious crimes, suffered mental or physical trauma and are cooperating with a law enforcement investigation.  The U Visa provides victims with temporary legal status and work eligibility for a maximum of four years.

Added Rep. Jeffries, “The hallmark of our democracy is a judicial system where legal adversaries compete in order to arrive at the correct result.  It is a fantasy to believe that unrepresented children have a fair shot in an immigration proceeding.”

The bill would provide appointed legal counsel for unaccompanied minors and disabled individuals during immigration proceedings.  It will reduce the amount of time respondents spend in detention and allow for more rapid removal when no legal basis exists to remain.

The legislation would also reduce the number of unnecessary immigration court proceedings overall by permitting pre-trial conferences to occur, reduce continuances and help eliminate unnecessary appeals, supporters said.

“The crisis of tens of thousands of undocumented children crowding into detention centers across the United States is quickly turning into a disaster for Americans and for countries around the world where these children are from, and how we respond is a question of our humanity,” said Bass, of California’s 37th district. “The clearest answer is Congress absolutely must immediately pass comprehensive immigration reform,  but in the meantime we should guarantee that each of these children as well as the people in these centers with serious mental disabilities have access to legal counsel so they do not become statistics in our foster care system. This legislation ensures that the American ideals of legal representation will be guaranteed to those people who are most in need.”

“Our current immigration removal system fails to live up to American values,” added Chu, also from California. “Each year, thousands of children face removal proceedings alone.  A child should not have to face such proceedings -- that determines whether they can stay or must go -- without legal counsel.  This bill is a critical step forward in ensuring due process and that the most vulnerable immigrants have a meaningful opportunity to seek the protections for which they qualify.”

“Now more than ever, unaccompanied children need representation to ensure they have fair access to U.S. protection,” said Wendy Young, president of the organization Kids In Need of Defense. “The majority are fleeing gangs who are targeting them for forced recruitment, and refusal to join can be very dangerous for the child and the child’s family.  Children with an attorney in court are much more likely to gain protection.  Without counsel, these children cannot present their claim for safety in the US, and we risk returning them to great harm.  As a global leader in the protection of the most vulnerable, the United States must no longer allow children – some as young as 2 years old – to appear in immigration court alone.  This is not who we are as a nation.”



Published: July 3, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 12