Fewer Children Get Legal Help Fighting Deportation

Visitors enter 26 Federal Plaza, the building where many immigration hearings take place. (Photo by Adi Talwar via City Limits)

Children in deportation hearings in NYC are not getting legal representation as frequently as they used to, and the court dockets and procedures have been eroded in such a way as to make the process of securing such representation more difficult for children, writes David Brand in City Limits.

In fiscal year 2016, 73 percent of the 5,580 children in deportation hearings had legal representation, while in fiscal year 2017 only 37 percent of the 3,697 juvenile cases had legal representation. For fiscal year 2018, the initial numbers are shaping up even worse: only 27 percent of the 624 cases thus far had legal representation.

Legal Aid Society’s Immigrant Youth Project supervising attorney Beth Krause says the changes [in federal immigration court practices] have led to fewer children getting legal representation and will likely doom more children to deportation — even if their situations or experiences merit asylum, protected status or visa eligibility.

“What this means is there are many, many children who are not getting consultation with a lawyer and many kids who do have relief available but, if they don’t talk to a lawyer, might not know it and give up,” Krause says.

City Limits notes that the children subject to deportation have no legal right to government-funded counsel. However:

New York City’s court used to provide some accommodations to help children find attorneys. The court consolidated the juvenile docket on specific days and assigned the cases to specific judges with experience presiding over children’s proceedings.

The court also shared docket information with nonprofits like New York Law School’s Safe Passage Project, Catholic Charities, Legal Aid, The Door and other Immigrant Child Advocates Relief Effort (ICARE) participants and permitted the organizations to meet with children in empty courtrooms or other spaces.

These provisions enabled children to access free legal counsel because the organizations knew how many unrepresented children would appear at court and when their case would be called. The accommodations also facilitated more efficient courtrooms — especially on days when a judge’s docket includes dozens of cases — because lawyers could prepare their young clients for court and guide them through proceedings.

Gradually, however, the court has scattered children’s proceedings throughout the month and assigned the cases to various judges who are at times unfamiliar with child-friendly practices or special legal provisions granted to children, such as longer filing deadlines, say Krause, Safe Passage Project Director Lenni Benson, Catholic Charities Supervising Attorney Jodi Ziesemer and The Door’s Director of Legal Services Eve Stotland.

A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) said that the courts were continuing to use separate dockets as needed but the lawyers City Limits spoke with said that wasn’t the case.

“The court is playing games with children’s lives and it is inexcusable that the court would prevent children from accessing legal counsel,” Stotland says. “To add insult to injury, the court not only ended the partnership [with nonprofit legal assistance groups], they’re pretending that it’s still going on.”

Go to City Limits to read more about the controversy, and to find out how immigration groups such as Safe Passage Project are trying to provide legal and emotional support to children at the courthouse.

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