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July 18, 2014 at 6:03 AM

Legal representation for unaccompanied minors at border

The humanitarian and refugee crisis involving migrant children now extends far beyond the border states.

As of Friday morning, Joint Base Lewis-McChord remains on a federal shortlist of military bases that might become a host site for some of the more than 54,000 migrant children caught entering the U.S. illegally since October.

If they come to the local base, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services must follow through with its promise on Wednesday to provide appropriate resources to help these children remain safe as they await hearings to determine their legal status. (In a Thursday Opinion Northwest blog post, I argued that many of these children likely qualify for refugee or asylum status.)

Here’s something to keep in mind: the government could expedite the process by providing more legal representation for these children. A coalition of immigrant rights’ advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, filed a lawsuit July 9 (read the Associated Press news story) arguing that every child deserves representation. Federal law requires they are given a fair hearing, but not an attorney. That’s troubling when you consider foreign children are trying to fend for themselves in court against adult attorneys.

“It’s complex, adversarial and what’s at stake is tremendous — indefinite family separation, violence, etc.,” says Matt Adams, legal director for Northwest Immigrants Rights PRoject. Under the status quo, he says he fears too many kids are “just being ground up through the machine and deported back to countries where horrible things have happened.”

Last month, I blogged about the potential economic savings for taxpayers when alternatives to detention are considered for adult immigrants. One idea that’s working well in New York City is a pilot program in which these individuals are provided with legal representation. Attorneys so far have found that having a trained professional to help immigrants navigate their rights appears to increase efficiencies. Other benefits include lower welfare costs.

Adams says migrant children are in a disparate situation. Five of the eight plaintiffs in the coalition’s suit reside in Washington state. He described the inherent disadvantages faced by three siblings from El Salvador under the age of 15 who saw their father murdered in front of them for running a rehabilitation center for people trying to leave the gang life.

“The juvenile mind is not developed or mature in so many aspects, and it’s ludicrous to assume they can (seek asylum or special immigrant juvenile visas) by themselves,” he says.

Of course, attorneys cost money. Pro bono and nonprofits can’t do all the work alone. President Obama’s recent request for $3.7 billion in emergency aid to address the border crisis, including millions to provide the kids with some legal assistance, is stalled in Congress. Lawmakers can’t shove this problem aside. They must do something now.

Comments | Topics: border crisis, immigrant children, jblm

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