Federal Court Rules Immigrant Children Facing Deportation Are Not Entitled to Free Attorney

By Alfonso Serrano Jan 30, 2018

Thousands of immigrant children awaiting deportation from the United States have no right to a government paid attorney, according to a federal appeals court ruling issued on Monday (January 29).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ruled that a child’s right to legal representation can be covered by immigration court judges and does not require the federal government to provide an attorney.

The appeals court upheld an immigration judge’s ruling denying asylum to a 13-year-old Honduran boy, known as C.J., who fled gang violence in his country accompanied by his mother, but was unable to secure free legal representation in the U.S., according to the Los Angeles Times. Unable to afford an attorney, his mother filed his asylum application herself.

From 2012 to 2014, 41 percent of unaccompanied migrant children were able to secure legal representation in U.S. immigration courts, according to the Center for American Progress. During that span, only 15 percent of children without attorneys were allowed to remain in the U.S., compared to 73 percent who were legally represented.

The American Civil Liberties Union argued before the appeals court that immigrant children have a constitutional right to a free attorney. But judge Consuelo Callahan said a system was already in place to protect immigrant children’s due process rights.

The circuit court ruling released on Monday read in part:

We sympathize with his personal plight, as C.J. appears to have displayed courage in the face of serious adversity. But while "our hearts are with [C.J.]," the law does not support his requested relief. Neither Supreme Court nor circuit precedent compels the remedy that C.J. seeks: court-appointed counsel at government expense. 

"It is a brutal decision," Ahilan Arulanantham, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times. "It is brutal for him and also brutal for thousands of other children who have fled three of the most violent countries on Earth—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The decision is incorrect and also just defies common sense."

The ACLU has not yet decided if it will appeal the ruling, which comes as the Trump administration mulls a policy proposal that would quickly deport some 150,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived from Central America in the last few years. The plan being developed by the Department of Justice would see these children deported without access to an immigration judge once they turn 18.

Child migration from Central America peaked in 2014, when roughly 70,000 unaccompanied children fleeing gang violence arrived at the southern border of the U.S. The migrants overwhelmed immigration officials, and the federal government temporarily housed the children on military bases.

Monday’s ruling also arrives as Congress weighs the fate of some 1.8 million young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Last week, the Trump administration unveiled a plan, widely panned by Democrats and Republicans, that would provide a 10- to 12-year path to citizenship for these immigrants, known as "Dreamers." In exchange, Congress would provide $25 billion to fund an southern border wall and agree to deep cuts to family-based migration and the visa lottery program, which provides 50,000 permanent resident visas annually to applicants from countries that are underrepresented in the U.S.