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Lawsuit Seeks Legal Counsel for Undocumented Kids at Immigration Hearings

PHOTO: A lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other organizations against the federal government says the government is obliged to provide undocumented children with legal counsel at immigration hearings. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.
PHOTO: A lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other organizations against the federal government says the government is obliged to provide undocumented children with legal counsel at immigration hearings. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense.
July 22, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY - A lawsuit filed against the federal government by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups is seeking government-provided legal counsel for undocumented children at immigration hearings.

Matt Adams, legal director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, says thousands of children each year are forced to face a government attorney by themselves at immigration hearings. He says children who do have an attorney have a much better chance of proving they qualify for refugee status.

"Through our office, the vast majority of the children do obtain legal status and are able to stay here," says Adams. "I can't remember the last time we lost on a case involving a child."

Adams says there are many cases where children likely qualify for refugee status but are deported because they don't have an attorney. A study from Syracuse University concludes that in 47 percent of the cases in which a child had legal representation, the court allowed the child to remain in the United States. Adams believes the federal government is not complying with the undocumented immigrants' constitutional right to due process by not providing them with legal counsel.

The lawsuit is prompted, in part, by the tens of thousands of children seeking refuge in the U.S. after fleeing Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, which are now among the most dangerous countries in the world - especially for young people. According to the United Nations, Honduras has the world's highest murder rate. Adams says children as young as 11 have been forced to join gangs which run huge chunks of the country, or are forced to run for their lives.

"They face threats against their very lives," says Adams. "They face sexual violation, repeated abuse, and for too many, death. It's astounding the stories that are coming up on a daily basis."

Adams hopes the lawsuit compels President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to implement a policy that will provide attorneys free of charge.

Troy Wilde, Public News Service - UT