U.S. sued for not providing attorneys to children in immigration court

Karla Salazar, right, and Ellen Leonard on Tuesday joined nearly 100 demonstrators at the naval base in Port Hueneme, where hundreds of immigrant children are being housed.
Karla Salazar, right, and Ellen Leonard on Tuesday joined nearly 100 demonstrators at the naval base in Port Hueneme, where hundreds of immigrant children are being housed.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Immigrant advocacy groups sued the federal government on Wednesday for what they say is a failure to provide legal representation for immigrant children facing deportation.

In a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in Seattle, attorneys for the groups allege that the government is violating due process by allowing some children to navigate the complex immigration legal system alone.

Listed as plaintiffs are eight immigrant children, from Mexico as well as Central America, including a 17-year-old living in Los Angeles who said he fled gang recruitment in Guatemala and cannot afford legal representation. Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said her agency does not comment on pending litigation.


The lawsuit was filed on the same day Justice Department officials announced plans to expedite immigration court proceedings for unaccompanied youth and families, moving them ahead of other cases to be heard by an expanded corps of immigration judges. The department also plans on expanding existing legal assistance programs for those in removal proceedings.

Some of the 243 immigration judges in 59 courts nationwide will be reassigned to hear the cases, either at the border or by video with some new judges appointed temporarily, federal officials said. The department also plans to expand assistance to Central American prosecutors and law enforcement, creating special teams of prosecutors to target human trafficking and organized crime.

The immigrant advocacy groups that filed suit are targeting ongoing actions in which immigration officials have initiated proceedings to deport thousands of minors, both recent arrivals as well as those who have lived for years in the United States but without permission. Many of the children never hire attorneys, appearing in court by themselves. Because immigration cases are civil, not criminal proceedings, defendants are not guaranteed the right to legal counsel.

In the groups’ suit, attorneys argue that children are not equipped to represent themselves in serious cases that can determine their future, lacking the intellectual and emotional capacity of adults as well as knowledge of legal remedies that may be available to them.

“Their ability to grasp what is at stake and even just perform the act of talking to a judge is virtually nonexistent,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “A 10-year-old cannot make legal arguments and cannot even make reliably accurate factual statements that a court can rely on in deciding that child’s case.”

Taxpayer-funded prosecutors are present at every immigration hearing for minors. Arulanantham said it is only fair that the government also provide legal counsel for the children.


The lawsuit, which calls for an injunction on all deportation proceedings for minors until they are guaranteed attorneys, names several federal agencies as defendants, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for the care of unaccompanied minors.

Twitter: @katelinthicum