The situation of children defending themselves at immigration court is not new.
In the past few weeks, we’ve been witness to the horrors that immigration policies can reach. The Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy has separated more than 2,000 immigrant children from their families in what’s probably the worst humanitarian crisis lived in the US in the last decades. The order to separate families was canceled after all the backlash the president received when the photos were made public, but the damage is done, and thousands of children who weren’t even properly registered are in a bureaucratic limbo that will make it extremely difficult to reunite them with their families. This calls for urgent measures at a social level to find the best way to get these families together and end this horrible crisis.
On June 30th, people gathered in many cities throughout the country in a march called "Families Belong Together" to protest the zero-tolerance policy and the treatment that migrants are receiving at the border. Besides the many strong speeches, there was one video that really brought home the terrible reality that migrants, particularly children, have been experienced in the country at least for the past six years. Created by film producer Linda Freedman in a collaboration with Immigration Counseling Services, Unaccompanied Children: Alone in America is a re-enactment of how immigration court trials with children are conducted.
In the short film, we can see three children of different ages and nationalities who have to represent themselves in court because they don’t have an attorney to defend them. Even though the film is a re-enactment (filming is forbidden), it’s heartbreaking to see children who don’t really understand the legal process they’re facing trying to answer the judge's questions. This film has gone viral, urging people to donate and support the organization that's raising funds to help offer legal support for these children. However, this situation isn’t new: for the past six years, children have been cited to court and most of them don’t have any legal counseling because they can’t afford it.
Since 2012, there has been an increase in the number of children under 18 crossing the US southern border unaccompanied. These numbers became even higher in 2014 in what Obama called an “urgent humanitarian situation.” The fact that so many children as young as toddlers were being caught alone crossing the border caught immigration authorities off guard. For that matter, at the time, the most logical solution was to put them in shelters while they tried contacting a relative in the US and start a legal process to determine if they were to be deported or allowed a visa.
Following an anti-trafficking statute signed in 2008, minors from Central America can’t be deported immediately and have to face a long process to determine if they can be given asylum or a visa to remain in the country. This, of course, was seen by many as if the US were allowing migrant children to stay, thus increasing the number of minors being sent to the country. Now, up to this point, we can understand that there’s a process to be followed, but what’s really unthinkable and simply inhumane is the fact that these minors aren’t allowed to have legal representation.
This is related to how the legal system is divided. People, regardless of their age, facing charges for federal felonies are appointed state lawyers to represent them during their legal process. But when it comes to civil cases, like immigration, the government isn’t obliged to provide legal counsel. This leaves thousands and thousands of migrants, including very young children on their own. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, since October 2004 (yes, this goes that far), more than half of the children who didn’t have legal support were deported. Moreover, only one in 10 with a lawyer was sent back to their country. The issue here is that most of these children are fleeing their countries in an attempt to escape from war, gang violence, poverty, abuse, among other horrors, and without knowing anything about the process, they are forced to defend themselves for a “crime” they don’t really understand.
This has, naturally, sparked a lot of controversy among those who think that their taxes shouldn’t be spent on people who are trying to reach the country illegally, and a large majority who thinks that forcing people to go through a trial without the tools to represent themselves, especially children, isn’t only cruel, but also inhumane. Then, what’s happened in the past few months with the separation of families just makes it worse. Legal representation is crucial for these people, since how they conduct themselves in their trials can have really severe consequences in their lives and even endanger them. They’re begging for asylum not because they think the US is "cool," but rather because they really can’t stay in their country. We’re talking about death sentences, being forced to work for gangs, or even being products of child-trafficking. If you were in that situation, wouldn’t you try your best to save your child from that?
Many judges have tried to help these children by postponing their hearings as much as they can, so that they can get some money and for a lawyer. They have been doing this for years, but the Trump administration has been really tough in opposing these measures and is pressuring judges to give definite sentences to avoid having more children in a legal limbo while waiting for a decision. This is why associations like Immigration Counseling Services are working really hard to get funding and help people solve their legal situation, and to reunite those thousands of kids with their families.
If you want to know more about this organization and help make this happen, take a look at their official website: Unaccompanied Children
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Images taken from Unaccompanied Children: Alone in America