Children Shouldn’t Be Left Alone in Immigration Court

Eleven-year-old Luisa was too young to apply on her own for a visa to come from Guatemala to the United States where she hoped to be reunited with her mother. But since federal immigration authorities detained her last year in Texas, Luisa has learned that she is apparently not too young to act as her own lawyer as federal immigration officials move to deport her back to her native Guatemala.

During a recent hearing in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, Luisa and more than two dozen other children crowded into a small room where the U.S. government has begun deportation hearings against them. Some sat quietly, feet dangling from benches. Others, who spoke indigenous languages and understood little Spanish, looked nervously around struggling to understand the proceedings.

Judge Frank M. Travieso urged the children to find pro bono attorneys to help them. Without legal help, he cautioned, they faced an uphill battle. He pulled out a thick black book from behind the bench and informed the children that the book is one of  many volumes of immigration case law that a government attorney will rely on to seek their deportation.

Unfortunately for those children, many will not find an immigration attorney, no matter how hard they try. Unlike in criminal cases, where defendants are provided a lawyer to ensure they receive a fair trial, children are not given a lawyer during their deportation cases, even though in some cases the outcome can be tantamount to a death sentence thousands of children face deportation proceedings without any legal representation. Many have made the treacherous journey alone to the United States – from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – and are then pushed to undertake another dangerous odyssey through America’s immigration courts.  Others have lived here since they were babies, but they also lack the money needed to obtain an immigration attorney.

The kids are expected to mount their own defense, by presenting supporting evidence and arguments to make their case, even though many are too young to read or write, and others are still struggling to overcome the trauma they suffered in their home countries or the journey north. And it doesn’t end there. Prosecutors trained in the complexities of U.S. immigration law and armed with all the resources of the federal government will try to persuade a judge to deport the children.

These children facing life or death consequences in immigration court shouldn’t suffer because there are not enough volunteer attorneys to ensure they receive a fair hearing in court. That’s why the ACLU, along with a coalition of organizations, today filed a federal lawsuit in Washington State to ensure that these children, the most vulnerable immigrants, receive legal representation in court. 

A 2011 report from a panel headed by a federal judge found that immigrants with lawyers are five times more likely to win their cases than those who represent themselves. And a recent report by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees concluded that nearly 60 percent of children arriving from Mexico and Central America qualify for some sort of humanitarian protection under international law. The Obama administration has sought to address the crisis at the border and in the courtroom by unveiling a new program that will provide some additional attorneys, while also pushing to fast-track deportations of children.

While not all of these children likely have a legal right to remain here, they all deserve due process and legal representation in court.

Learn more about immigrant deportation and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (5)
Read the Terms of Use


This has to be a joke, so we're expected to pay for these lawyers as well?


You're expected to pay for what it costs to run this country; if you wish to have a functioning legal system that does it's due-diligance (without discriminating between particular legal matters), than yes, the expectation is that this country will pay.

Moreover, in true terms, the amount any of us will be expected to *pay* equates to less than pennies on the dollar. And, IMO, we can afford the proper care of these children.


The joke has to be that theses kids have to face deportation courts without adequate counsel.


And according to other accounts these unaccompanied children (or at least some of them) are treated very badly, abused, in detention. My heart bleeds for them.

I frankly don't understand why we can't keep them from coming, but yes, once they are here, they should be treated well and given (bilingual) lawyers.


The joke is Obama has asked for $1.8b with more than $500m allocated for legal services. I believe the ACLU is opportunist. In the name of representing illegal alien children, the ACLU is trying to collect as much of this $1.8 billion for themselves. I don't recall her name, but C-Span has this woman from the ACLU on this past week and in her own words, the $500m is not enough to defend the 52,000 illegal alien children that has already cross the border. Looks to me like they just found a gold mine cash cow in the federal government. That's just low-down and dirty.

Stay Informed