How Can a Three Year Old Represent Himself in Court?

37238859_2bdff038e2_oEach week, in immigration courts across the United States, hundreds of children, some as young as just a few months old, come before immigration judges and are called upon to defend themselves against deportation. Among them is Arturo,* a three year old who arrived at the United States border in April 2014 because family members feared for his life in El Salvador. Although he is only a toddler, the government has put him (named in our lawsuit as “A.E.G.E.”) into deportation proceedings on his own. He has no attorney to help him explain to the court why he should not be deported.

Arturo’s case is not unusual. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, less than a third of children with immigration cases pending in June 2014 had legal representation.

On Tuesday, the child plaintiffs in J.E.F.M. v. Holder, a nationwide class action seeking to ensure that all children in immigration court have legal representation, asked the federal court presiding over the case to add Arturo and two other children to the lawsuit. In J.E.F.M., the plaintiffs are challenging the government’s long-standing failure to provide counsel to children in immigration court and asking the court to order the government to appoint legal representation for unrepresented children facing deportation.

The government has moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that none of the children has been harmed by the lack of representation. But the new plaintiffs and countless other children across the country are being deprived a fair immigration court hearing and are suffering real harm from the government’s failure to provide them legal representation:

  • Arturo was conceived when his mother was raped when she was only 15 years old. After she faced continuing threats from her rapist, Arturo’s mother fled El Salvador and left her son in the care of his aunt. However, because his family continued to fear for his safety in El Salvador, Arturo was brought to the border in Texas, taken into custody by the government, and put into deportation proceedings. He is now in the care of his mother in Los Angeles, who is a lawful permanent resident. Without legal assistance, Arturo has no way to explain to the immigration court whether he may be eligible for protection in the United States.
  • J.C.P. is a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who fled gang harassment after a friend who refused gang members’ advances was killed. When she arrived in the United States, she was put into deportation proceedings, but was not told when her first court date would be. Despite their best efforts to stay in touch with the immigration court, by the time G.J.C.P. and her family learned the date of her hearing, she had already been ordered deported by an immigration judge. Without legal help, G.J.C.P. has no idea how to ask an immigration court to reopen her immigration case and provide her with a day in court.
  • Similarly, J.E.V.G., a 17-year-old boy from El Salvador, was ordered removed by an immigration court in Texas even though he never received notice of his hearing and was not present in court. As a result, J.E.V.G. could be removed from the country at any time—and he too has no lawyer to ask the court to reopen his case.

These children and the others bringing the case illustrate just how critical it is that children have legal representation in their immigration court proceedings. And yet, in recent months, the government has instituted policies that actually exacerbate the problem. Over the summer, the government announced that it would prioritize the immigration cases of children over those of most adults, creating new “rocket dockets” that give children even less opportunity to find legal help.

Although the government claims that immigration judges have authority to provide children with time to find legal assistance, attorneys and court observers around the country report that children are receiving less time to find attorneys. The problem is made worse because the government is initiating deportation cases against increasing numbers of children, severely straining the limited pro bono legal services available. Moreover, court observers report that immigration judges are asking children to complete complex forms like asylum applications, which must be completed in English, even if they have not found representation. Children must plead to the charges being brought against them without legal help—and some are even ordered removed or told to voluntarily depart the United States.

As plaintiffs in J.E.F.M. argue, children simply cannot adequately prepare for these cases on their own. An immigration court system that requires them to do so is fundamentally unfair and violates due process.

The J.E.F.M. child plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Council, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Public Counsel, and K&L Gates LLP.

*Name changed to protect our client’s identity

Photo by Paolo.

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  • Robert Mitchell

    Children should be represented by their parents or legal guardians.

    • Angela Shortt

      The very least this country can do is recognize that NO CHILD can effectively present their own cases in court. This is idiocy. Where’s this country’s so called highly lauded compassion? These are children, and the dangers they face are very real! This isn’t about flooding the borders and overrunning this country, as some have been saying. This is about circumstances beyond the average citizens’ of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras’ control, and the United States has had some responsibility for the circumstances. Can’t we try to be less hysterical and territorial, and think about the children? Doesn’t many of the residents of the United States of America identify themselves as Christians? Here’s only a measure of Christian scripture: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? 3:18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” (King James Bible, 1 John)

      “It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
      (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 250)



    President Obama actions towards “Brown Native babies” show how he really feels about Latino persons as a whole. He has never spoken on how “anti-Latino”Hatred is out of control in America like he has for “Afro-Americans,Gay persons. He has “cleansed”America of 2.9 Million Latino Natives with the use of his pin .No concern for our families as human beings. Why would he give a “rats ass” when it comes to 3 years old Brown Faceless Border Babies.Hell he has been “cleansing them out The USA”since 1/2009. This type of “hatred”will NOTbe cover on “White Liberal Media” or Fox GOP media since these “brown babies”in America are ID as “sub-humans”NOT “WHITE or BLACK”Enough Humans! STOP THE “HATRED”A ENOUGH IS A ENOUGH!!

  • SVasquez

    If criminals who commit heinous crimes can get representation, why can’t the kids?

  • Gustavo A. Garcia

    I firmly believe that America is the Melting Pot of our world and it has shown that it can learn form its mistakes….come ahead and be an example of what a true and strong Democratic Republic can become. We should have faith in ourselves and those that lead us to make the right decisions and give the opportunity to those that are in need… as Emma Lazarus once wrote for our Lady of Liberty that still stands defiant and proud………..Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
    We have a say in things still.. and words backed by action do move mountains!!!!!! We as citizens of this beautifull country should from time to time raise our voice and be heard… remember in 1865 how one voice changed the hystory of this nation,the 1880s when women were allowed to vote .. and the 60s that was a revelation come true … it all started with the Voices of the people….. One Voice!!…We should speak and represent those masses that cannot speak, those who are yearning to be free.

  • Stoney Huff

    The child’s lawyer would still be working at the behest of the government, ala Public Defenders. Low pay thanks to years of Sequester cuts. Truly a disgrace.