The Biden administration has announced a new policy that is set to provide government-funded legal help to vulnerable asylum-seeking children in a number of U.S. cities, BuzzFeed News reports. This is a significant initiative: Unlike in criminal court, people in immigration court aren’t guaranteed an attorney. This includes most unaccompanied children, who have had to appear in court alone.
“As evidence has shown through the years, a child without a lawyer has almost no chance of presenting and winning a complex asylum case,” the Immigrant Defenders Law Center tweeted. BuzzFeed News reports the initiative is set to roll out in eight cities: Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.
“We applaud the Biden admin for its new initiative, Counsel for Children,” tweeted Kids In Need of Defense (KIND). “It is the right step in providing fairness and assistance to unaccompanied children, so they aren't forced to navigate our complex immigration system alone.” Yet, that’s the cruel reality of our very flawed immigration system. “Immigrant toddlers ordered to appear in court alone,” read one headline from The Texas Tribune back in 2018.
Legal service providers have worked to represent some asylum-seeking children in U.S. custody, but it’s nowhere close to the universal representation that’s needed. This is critical, because “children with attorneys are 70 times more likely to win their cases in immigration court,” KIND president Wendy Young said earlier this year, in response to the administration memo announcing an effort to expand legal help for kids. “Unrepresented children, meanwhile, face grave risk of return to the very harm they fled.”
“There have been other efforts aimed at boosting legal representation for children in court, including one in Baltimore that provided attorneys to children who were under 16, had been released from federal custody, and had been issued a notice to appear in deportation proceedings,” BuzzFeed News reported. “A different initiative was also created to provide attorneys for children in the Southeast. Both of the programs ended in 2017.”
Counsel for Children comes as the Biden administration has implemented measures to speed up the release of unaccompanied children from Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody. Currently, more than 13,000 children are in ORR custody. It’s unclear how many are at the unlicensed camps at the center of a lawsuit against the Biden administration. At one of the two sites (in Pecos, Texas), advocates said in court documents that “the reports we have received from both attorneys and clients on the conditions at Pecos are the worst we’ve ever observed.”
“We believe in an immigration system that says #FamiliesBelongTogether—one without child detentions and deportations,” Families Belong Together tweeted. “Providing legal counsel to immigrant kids is a good first step, but we need to go beyond a few cities, and make this accessible for all.” Prism reported last month that “[s]ince New York City launched the first pilot program offering legal representation to immigrants in 2014, 50 jurisdictions across 21 states have implemented models of public defenders for immigrants in deportation proceedings. Still, the vast majority of immigrants in deportation proceedings did not have legal representation in 2020.”
“No immigrant should ever face a cruel immigration court system without a lawyer by their side, including migrant children and their parents across the rest of the United States,” Immigrant Defenders Law Center continued, echoing the need for universal representation. “We will continue to fight for universal representation until no immigrant is forced to face an unjust immigration system alone.”