The stories below are based off real client experiences. However, all names and specific details have been altered as a matter of privacy and confidentiality.
Juana was 11 years old when she came to the U.S. from Honduras. She lived with her grandparents, but they could not protect her from the violence engulfing their country. A cousin helped her make the treacherous journey from Honduras to the U.S. She got across the southern border in to Texas, but she was quickly apprehended by border patrol officers. The border patrol officers explained her rights to her including her right to make a phone call, her right to be represented by an attorney and her right to see an immigration judge. The problem was that the officer read these rights to her in English. She only spoke Spanish. She unwittingly nodded her head, and she was transferred to a facility with other children who came into the U.S. without their parents. She was ultimately released to her mother in Kansas.
Unknown to her, and her mother, she also was placed in immigration proceedings and given an immigration hearing. She had no idea how the immigration legal system worked and neither did her mom. Juana was just excited to be reunited with her mother. Unfortunately, neither understood Juana’s obligation to go to court to see an immigration judge. Juana did not attend her hearing and was ordered deported from the U.S. She now faces the daunting task of trying to reopen her case and see if she is eligible for some sort of relief or get deported to the violent country she fled. At this point, the difference between having an attorney and not having an attorney could be the difference between protection in the U.S. or potential persecution or death in Honduras.
For the past two years, women and children refugees from three Central American countries, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have come to the U.S. in record numbers due to significant violence and failing police systems in their countries. Many of the women and children who come to the U.S. are eligible for asylum. According to the Asylum Office, part of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, close to 90% of families who have come to the U.S. have shown a credible fear of persecution or torture. Legally, this means that the Asylum Office has determined that they have a significant possibility to be granted asylum in the U.S.
Unfortunately, just having shown a credible fear of persecution does not protect all of these refugees. After these refugees are found to have a credible fear they are placed in immigration court before and immigration judge. If the refugees are unaccompanied minors, they do not have to show a credible fear of persecution at the border. However, they are still placed in immigration court. For both groups of refugees, the presence of an attorney can be the difference between getting asylum in the U.S. and getting deported to the country they fled.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, almost 50 percent of unaccompanied children are unrepresented at immigration proceedings. Of all the deportation orders issued by immigration judges against children in 2014 and 2015, almost 90 percent of them were unrepresented. The number of deportation orders against children for failing to appear in court (also called in absentia orders) were even higher at almost 97 percent. These numbers were similar for families. 86 percent of families ordered removed were unrepresented and almost 97 percent of families order deported in absentia were unrepresented.
These striking numbers show the absolute necessity for representation of these refugees. When they come to the U.S., they have no idea how to navigate the treacherous maze of immigration law, they do not speak the language, and often they have limited education and little money. For unaccompanied children, particularly younger children, they have no ability to speak for or defend themselves in court or the asylum office, if they even make it to court or the asylum office.
When I tell acquaintances unfamiliar with immigration law that immigrants, even child refugees from Central America, are not appointed attorneys, many are shocked. Criminal defendants are required to have representation because of the implication of prison time or other deprivation of liberty. Despite the grave consequences of immigration proceedings, particularly for these refugees, immigration cases are considered civil. There is no requirement for appointment of counsel.
However, Senator Harry Reid recently introduced a bill to require appointment of counsel, even at the cost of the government if necessary, for unaccompanied children, disabled individuals, and victims of abuse, torture or violence. The bill would also permit the immigration court to appoint attorneys for any person in immigration court, although it is not required. This is a step in the right direction. Although there is little hope it will pass as a bill, the importance of representation must be acknowledged, as highlighted by the statistics from TRAC. No refugee or child should be ordered deported without representation from competent attorneys.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this blog should be construed as legal advice. If you are in removal proceedings or need legal advice on your immigration case, please contact an immigration attorney.