Unrepresented Minors in Immigration Court
The news since last year has been inundated with stories about children crossing the US/Mexico border unaccompanied. This surge, as it has been called, created a need for places to house the children and lawyers to defend them. So how many of those children have actually been allowed to stay in America? And what factors are helping and hurting their chances?
President Obama promised equal treatment and compassion for children crossing the border, but are they getting it? In the US there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings and no exception for minors. There is some free legal representation available to unaccompanied minors but there is certainly not enough to go around. The President has requested more funding for this representation but has had little success.
The two major paths of relief for these children are to apply for asylum or special immigrant juvenile status (“SIJS”). Asylum, is based almost entirely on the circumstances the child is fleeing in his or her country of origin. While special immigrant juvenile status is based more on the child’s particular family structure. Both applications are complicated and difficult in their own ways. The asylum application must be completely in English and requires substantial documentation. The SIJS path requires the child to first win a custody determination in state or local court.
Since last July, 711 children without counsel were ordered removed or given voluntary departure and only 352 of these same children have succeeded in having their removal proceedings terminated or administratively closed. To compare, in the same time-period 2,459 children with counsel achieved success in closing their cases. This makes the success rate of children with lawyers nearly seven times that of children without. Only 1,096 children with counsel were ordered removed or took voluntary departure in the same time frame. This data, received in response to a FOIA request submitted by Politico, was culled from a sample of 8,660 cases tried between April 14th and July 18th of last year. There are still 18,000 unaccompanied minors in the system waiting for a final decision.
There are also disparities in outcomes for children depending on what circuit their case is heard in. Children are especially disadvantaged when seeking immigration relief in the South. Data from the Miami and Atlanta courts, both in the 11th Circuit, shows a lopsided result against children without a lawyer. In Atlanta, the court removed 324 children and allowed only 1 to administratively close his case. In Miami, 188 unrepresented children were removed and 73 had their cases closed. In Los Angeles, only 8 unrepresented minors have had their cases closed, while 223 have been ordered removed. The numbers are slightly skewed because any child who does not appear for court is ordered removed “in absentia” without presenting their case. Overall, the numbers show that children without representation have a harder time remaining in the United States and that in certain courts their odds are bleaker than others.