A child can be sweet, mad, smart, hilarious, whiny, silly, or sad. A child can be an angel, a terror, a silly goose, Captain America, Wonder Woman, a kitty cat, or a Tyrannosaurus Rex. A child cannot be an immigration lawyer. And yet…
In immigration courts across the United States, every single day, children and other incredibly vulnerable individuals are left without counsel. If they cannot afford one, or don’t luck out with pro bono assistance, they are left to face immigration judges on their own. They are denied a most basic premise of our constitution — due process of law.
We all know that at least one adult, who should have known better, having trained immigration judges, claimed he could teach 3 to 4 year olds to represent themselves in immigration court. In a collection of videos, AILA members and others pushed back on the ridiculous claim by asking their own kids some basic immigration law questions. Those videos are hilarious. But the reality is all too serious.
The idea that children could comprehend enough about one of the most complicated areas of law on their own to represent themselves competently is ludicrous. And the statistics speak for themselves – children who have counsel are five times more likely to win relief in immigration proceedings than those without. Children, those who have disabilities, and victims of abuse, torture or violence deserve to have an advocate on their side who can help navigate the system and thoroughly review whether a vulnerable individual has a claim under our laws.
In order to provide those vulnerable individuals with a fair chance, Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL), and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), along with 20 other co-sponsors in the House, have reintroduced the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act. Similar legislation was introduced last year which offered protection for children and other vulnerable groups in immigration proceedings, through access to counsel, legal orientation programs, and case management services.
It’s not only the right thing to do, but it also helps immigration cases move more smoothly through the system, increases court appearance rates, and provides vulnerable individuals due process, a value enshrined in America’s history and foundational narrative. I am incredibly proud that my home state New York just announced it is expanding a program which will guarantee all immigrants in deportation proceedings access to government-provided counsel. This is a big step, but we need to move the entire country forward in a similar way.
Some people think this type of legislation can’t get off the ground nationally, but I think they are wrong. Even with all the negative attention currently placed on immigrants in the United States, I believe anyone of faith, anyone of integrity, and anyone who cares about children would support this bill if they really understood the situation facing hundreds of thousands of children in our country. They would see that these are children who through no fault of their own have found themselves in the throes of a complicated legal process They would recognize that access to counsel is a basic American principle.
I think there is a majority in the House and in the Senate who fit those parameters. Commonsense bills like this, those that make the system work more efficiently while also letting us live our values, can pass. We need to lift it up, we need to fight for it, and we need to reach out to others in the faith, legal, and child-focused communities to work on this with us. We need to make sure that kids these days have counsel and a fair day in court.
Written by Anastasia Tonello, AILA First Vice President