Reuters reported last week that the Obama Administration would begin to round up Central American women and children, including “minors who have entered the country without a guardian and since turned 18 years of age” and begin deporting them. The news report goes on to say that “many of those apprehended for unlawful entry are put into deportation proceedings in court but do not show up for their scheduled appearance before a judge or ignore court orders to leave the country.”

However, this only tells part of the story and ignores some of the critical hurdles these migrants face. Upon arrival, children as young as toddlers are forced to navigate a complicated legal system, often with no legal representation. Many have experienced trauma, are new to this country and often do not speak English. They face challenges which may prevent them from appearing for their court proceedings, including their lack of understanding of the process and their dependence on adults for transportation.

Yet, despite those challenges, data shows that the majority of children do attend their immigration court proceedings and, not surprisingly, the attendance rate is especially high for those who are represented by lawyers.

Data from the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the agency which runs U.S. immigration courts, shows that for completed cases, 95.4 percent of children represented by lawyers appeared for their court proceedings. This number is historically consistent—never below 91 percent since FY ‘05.  For completed cases overall (meaning cases with legal representation and cases without legal representation)—67.6 percent of children appeared in immigration court.

This data underscores the crucial role that legal representation plays in ensuring that children appear for their hearing and have their day in court.  Over the past several years, thousands of children have come to the U.S. fleeing horrific levels of violence in Central America.  They have arrived at the U.S. border in need of protection. But the U.S. government does not guarantee them the right to a lawyer, even if they are alone (i.e., without a parent) and/or unable to hire one. The fact that represented children appear at such high rates and unrepresented children are more likely to miss their hearings suggests that many children are unwitting victims of the system’s deficiencies.

Instead of spending money rounding up some of the most vulnerable migrants in the U.S., the appointment of counsel to children could be one positive step forward which would actually help ensure attendance at proceedings, protect the basic due process rights we should afford asylees and refugees and do it all in a more cost-effective, humane, and fair manner.

Photo by Tommy Wells.

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