Editors: Give child migrants their day in court—and a lawyer

“I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.” Sometimes it requires a ludicrous statement to call attention to a ludicrous system. In this case, the statement was uttered by Jack Weil, a U.S. immigration court judge, who was speaking about minors who appear in his court without a parent or a lawyer. They are among the thousands of unaccompanied minors who appear in immigration courts without legal counsel. Though nonprofit agencies and pro-bono attorneys have tried to shoulder the load, 42 percent of children detained by the U.S. immigration system must fend for themselves in deportation hearings. This greatly increases the likelihood that they will be deported back to their home country.

In a special report compiled in 2015 in conjunction with all 13 Jesuit law schools in the United States, Jesuit Refugee Service identified three important reforms targeted at vulnerable migrants. The first is now the subject of a proposed Senate bill. The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would guarantee a lawyer to unaccompanied minors detained by the U.S. government. Short of such a guarantee, the White House should continue to push for additional funding for programs that provide legal representation to children and families seeking asylum. Finally, the process of “expedited processing” for children and families should end. Because of the large number of migrants who entered the United States in 2014 and 2015, deportation cases were fast-tracked, making it more difficult for lawyers to prepare and for immigrants to locate the resources available to them. Many of these children fled violence or gang life in their home countries and have a legitimate case to make for asylum. Children in detention deserve more than just temporary food and shelter. They deserve a real chance at a new life.

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