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Immigration Reform 2016 – News Updates: U.S. Court Rejects ACLU Lawsuit, Undocumented Children Not Allowed Lawyers in Deportation Hearings

First Posted: Sep 22, 2016 07:54 AM EDT
Children make up most of the victims of sex trafficking in Guatemala.

Children make up most of the victims of sex trafficking in Guatemala.(Photo : Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A class-action lawsuit arguing undocumented children should be allowed government-appointed lawyers during deportation proceedings cannot move forward, a federal appeals court in Seattle ruled Tuesday.

The three-judge panel was not addressing the claim itself; whether due process and statutory rights of minors are being violated. The decision, given in their written opinion, was based on jurisdiction and the Immigration and Nationality Act that prevents such cases from reaching U.S. District Courts.

Judge Mary Margaret McKeown sympathized with the children's plight, noting the court "would be naïve if we did not acknowledge that having an unrepresented minor in immigration proceedings poses an extremely difficult situation."

"I write to underscore that the Executive and Congress have the power to address this crisis without judicial intervention," McKeown wrote in her concurrence. "What is missing here? Money and resolve - political solutions that fall outside the purview of the courts."

Senior Circuit Judge Andrew Kleinfeld agreed with his colleague, but said immigration reform issues should be left to politicians.

ACLU, Immigrant Advocacy Groups Sue

The American Civil Liberties Union, along with a handful of other civil rights groups and law firms, filed the lawsuit on behalf of undocumented children two years ago. They sought to have the minors defended by U.S. government-appointed attorneys, as U.S. citizens are guaranteed under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Plaintiffs in the case are teenagers predominately from Central America. They include: three siblings from El Salvador whose father was murdered in front of them, a 15-year-old Guatemalan boy who was abandoned and abused, and a 16-year-old Honduran boy with special education needs and limited communication skills.

The U.S. Justice Department argued Constitutional rights do not apply to immigrant children. While the DOJ does help some minors find attorneys, they caution against doing so in every case given the financial strain it puts on taxpayers.

Last June, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly certified the ACLU's class-action lawsuit. Zilly's order packaged thousands of undocumented immigrants under age 18 into a single case that protected anyone who didn't have a lawyer, couldn't afford one, or may be eligible for asylum.

Tuesday's ruling said any claims bust be filed individually and in federal appeals courts only after deportation proceedings conclude.

Minors Face Deportation Hearings Alone

In March, senior DOJ official and immigration judge Jack H. Weil testified preschool-aged immigrants know enough about immigration issues to represent themselves.

"I've taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds," Weil said during sworn testimony. "It takes a lot of time. It talks a lot of patience. They get it. It's not the most efficient, but it can be done."

Over 60,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the U.S. between 2014 and 2015. Most fled sexual violence and gang threats in Central America. Once caught, children are placed in immigration detention centers along with men and women awaiting deportation hearings. The cleanliness and constitutionality of these centers has come into question over the last few years.

Faced with deportation, children take the same course as adults. The minors make their case to immigration judge, regardless of language barriers or their understanding of immigration law.

"Unrepresented kids aren't able to go through that process. They don't have the capacity," Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told the Associated Press.

"On the one hand the judges recognize the gravity of the situation," he added. "But the court has the responsibility to resolve an issue when there's no other meaningful forum."

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