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Lawsuit urges attorneys be required in child immigrant cases

In recent years it has become tragically common for unaccompanied children to travel thousands of miles from Central America to the Florida and other places in the U.S. to flee oppression or rejoin family members in America. When they arrive, many are arrested and face deportation hearings -- without the assistance of an attorney. A lawsuit filed in Washington State seeks to change that, and argues children facing deportation have the right to be represented by an attorney when they appear in immigration court.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and several immigrant rights organizations. The case gained national attention when a former immigration judge testified that children as young as 3 and 4-years-old often appeared in his courtroom without a lawyer. The plaintiffs in the case include children from Florida, Texas, California and Washington State.

Under current U.S. law children who appear in immigration court have the right to a fair hearing, but not to be represented by an attorney. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue the "full and fair hearing" requirement is meaningless if a child has to appear in court without an attorney. The Justice Department, on the other hand, argues there is no money to provide lawyers for the children and a child immigrant who was arrested just after arrival does not have the same constitutional rights as one who has lived in the U.S. for a while.

For many child immigrants, there are legal ways to avoid deportation and stay in the U.S. There are a number of visa programs that allow family members who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents to petition for permanent residence status for the child. Unfortunately, if a young child is appearing in immigration court without an attorney, they may never learn of these programs.

Source: Seattle Times, "Obama administration wants Seattle lawsuit over immigrant children dismissed," Mike Carter, March 24, 2016

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