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Refugee Children Seek Representation in Courts

Alone and Afraid from Capital & Main on Vimeo.

The clock is ticking for six refugee children from El Salvador and Guatemala who are plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that seeks to compel the Obama administration to ensure access to legal representation for tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors facing deportation proceedings.

The plaintiffs are among the more than 50,000 Central American children who have illegally crossed the border into the Southwestern United States in recent months, fleeing threats of violence by transnational street gangs that arguably exert more effective control over the daily lives of residents in large swathes of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras than those countries’ national governments.

Over a period extending from this month to early next year, the six plaintiffs are scheduled to appear for their own deportation hearings. As with thousands of other unaccompanied minors facing similar circumstances, the decisions of the immigration judges in their cases could mean the difference between life and death.

Three of the children are siblings from El Salvador whose parents operated a ministry that helped people exit the gangs and transition into civilian life. Gang members retaliated against their family by killing the siblings’ cousin and murdering their father in front of them, then threatening the children with violence unless they joined the gang themselves.

Early next month, the three siblings are scheduled to appear in immigration court to argue their case for asylum against a government prosecutor, without any legal representation. They are 10, 13 and 15 years old. Should the judge favor the government’s case and rule that the siblings be deported back to El Salvador, their chances of survival will be questionable and their chances of avoiding conscription into the gangs, even more so.

Last Thursday, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union and several other organizations, the six plaintiffs filed a motion to prevent the Obama administration from deporting them until they are able to secure legal representation or have counsel appointed to them by the government.

The motion was filed against the backdrop of an ongoing effort by Congressional Republicans and parallel steps by the White House to expedite the deportation of unaccompanied minors from the three countries. The Justice Department has extended operations of immigration courts in order to speed up deportation hearings with the goal of reducing the wait time for an initial hearing to 21 days, a process some critics refer to as a “rocket docket.” (Last year, the average immigration case took more than a year and a half to reach a verdict.) And the White House and Republicans in Congress share a goal of neutralizing a Bush-era human trafficking law that guarantees asylum seekers from countries other than Mexico and Canada the right to a day in court to present their asylum claims before any deportation order is handed down.

“These children fled horrific violence in their home countries,” says Ahilan Arulanantham, Deputy Legal Director for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “The government will pay a trained prosecutor to advocate for their deportation in court. All we ask is that the government give them time to find a lawyer or provide one for them. We owe it to ourselves — as a nation that respects due process and the rights of refugees — to give these children a fair day in court.”

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