The practice of requiring unaccompanied minors to go through the process of deportation by themselves is something that has been happening for a while now but is not something that is often talked about. In recent months, you’ve probably heard about immigration policies and ICE raiding workplaces and putting people away. The place where people who have been rounded up end up in immigration courts. There are a total of sixty immigration courts in the U.S. and thousands of people go to these courts to plead against deportation every year.
This process makes all the difference between life or death and it is unfortunate to say that the system is a mess, according to multiple current and former immigration court judges. Trump and his administrations zero tolerance policy has added on to the tremendous amount of cases immigration courts have to go over. According to a report in June of 2018, there were about 700,000 cases that were pending.
Paul Wickham Schmidt, a former immigration judge, said that the immigration court system can’t even handle the cases they have now because “there’s too many cases and not enough judges.” Schmidt says that another problem with these courts is that the Department of Justice has mismanaged the dockets. What this means is that whenever a new administration comes in, the new administration has different priorities from the previous one and therefore they change the docket. When this happens, new cases are prioritized and moved to the front of the docket. Cases that are old and should have priority are moved to the back and in some instances, some of these cases never get heard.
Now, lets talk about the kids. Children that face horrible conditions in their home country often make the journey to the United States alone. Unlike criminal courts, in immigration courts, the federal government is not required to provide lawyers to defendants who cannot afford them.
According to an article by the Center for Immigration Studies, more than 50% of migrant, unaccompanied children who have come to the U.S. since 2014 do not have attorneys to represent themselves in court. Children from the ages of 2-17 are appearing by themselves in court because of the lack of representation through an attorney. Not only do they have to represent themselves in court, but they have to navigate through our complicated immigration system alone and often without counsel.
In court, judges ask children questions about the conditions they have to face back home and often, many children are afraid of making a mistake when representing themselves in front of a judge. Children tend to make mistakes when telling their stories because they are afraid and when this happens, they are more likely to get sent back to the very place they were fleeing. According to Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration database, as of 2014, more than 80% of children who came to court unrepresented were deported. Running away from violence, searching for economic opportunities, and reuniting with family are the most cited reasons why children travel to the U.S. unaccompanied.Often times these children don’t even know the reasons why they fled their home country or the political situation and usually parents do know why. That’s why being unaccompanied and unrepresented in court is such a bad thing for a child to go through alone.
Because of their age, unaccompanied children have more legal protections than other immigrants. U.S. law mandates that kids that show up from Central America alone have to be apprehended by Homeland security and cannot be turned away immediately. Alternately, children are taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Settlement And if possible, children are housed with friends or family who have agreed to act as sponsors and provide for their care. Although this is a good thing, what children have to do in court is different and are not as protected.
The Justice Department issued guidelines in a memo that take away certain protections that ensure that children feel comfortable in an immigration court. The memo removed suggestions in guidelines on how to conduct “child-sensitive questioning” and warned judges to be skeptical of kid’s cases for protection. The Department of Justice makes it hard for these children to advocate for themselves in court therefore making it hard for them to get the protection they need.
There are many things that can be done in order to fix our immigration court systems and the way immigrants are prosecuted starting from clearing the backlog of cases the system has to deal with. The best way to do this would be to make immigration courts independent from the Department of Justice but that is not something that can easily happen. But the very least we can do is help children not be represented by themselves. We can do this by introducing a bill that ensures that minors who cannot afford an attorney be provided with one or at the very least receive counsel that will help them represent themselves alone in court.
Immigrant children should not have to go back to places that are not safe for them and it is our responsibility to make sure that they receive all the help that they can get.