Imagine being nine years old, fleeing violence, poverty and other social problems in your home nation. You’ve arrived at a new country billed as the promised land, only to be swept into a detention facility with horrific conditions, and now, you’re facing off against a judge in court. You don’t understand the language, you don’t know why you’re in court, and you’re all alone, without a lawyer. When the gavel falls with your deportation order, you still don’t understand what just happened.
That’s something many undocumented immigrant children don’t have to imagine, because it’s a situation they’re experiencing every day. The United States is experiencing an unprecedented flood of undocumented children and the court and immigration systems are struggling to keep up — but because immigrants are not guaranteed legal representation while working their way through court, many of those children are facing judges without legal advocates.
Even with pro bono and public service organizations working to protect kids in court, the sheer number of children is overwhelming the number of people available to provide support services, and children are experiencing the brunt of the problem.
That’s why the Obama Administration just announced a pro bono branch of Americorps focused on offering legal representation to immigrants, and why California has unveiled an attachment to a budget bill that would set aside $3 million for funding immigration support services for children. The proposed bill would route the funds to firms and organizations that offer pro bono immigration law services to help them hire and pay staff who can go to court on behalf of immigrant children to help them get fair representation. The bill was brought about partially in response to a fact-finding visit to an immigration detention center, where legislators were disturbed by what they saw.
This marks an important moment for California lawmakers, as they’ve offered up statements on the issue, but haven’t moved with concrete action to address the number of children clogging immigration courts. The bill also critically recognizes that in addition to being a fundamental miscarriage of justice in a nation where everyone should have legal representation, the failure to match children with attorneys can be fatal, as children fleeing violence and dangerous living conditions who are deported back home are at serious personal risk. The state’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, also supports the bill. Legislators have just days to act on it, as California’s lawmakers adjourn on the 31st of this month.
In addition to directing services at children in court, the bill has some important caveats for state courts. It requires courts to facilitate the review of immigration cases (a requirement before they can be taken on in federal courts). It also provides more options for child custody decisions made by state courts, allowing them to act quickly in cases of parental abuse and other special situations.
California’s legislators will essentially have to pass the bill if they want the state’s budget to successfully pass, and lawmakers are confident that it will succeed even if every state Republican votes against it — and many of the state’s GOP lawmakers are displeased with the bill. Once it passes, California will be setting a blueprint for other states struggling with immigrant children to follow, and perhaps states like Texas and Arizona will follow suit to ensure justice for immigrant children.
Photo credit: Elvert Barnes.