Los Angeles, California - Today, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris joined Washington Attorney General Robert W. Ferguson in filing a friend-of-the-court brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case J.E.F.M v, Lynch, to ensure that every unaccompanied minor placed in immigration proceedings is guaranteed a right to counsel.
“Children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. A child forced to navigate our complicated immigration system should be provided with due process,” said Attorney General Harris. “For these children, adequate legal representation can mean the difference between life and death. We must live up to our nation’s principles of justice, equality, and fairness, and guarantee the right to due process for children seeking safety within our borders.”
The brief argues that children are unfairly hindered by age and lack the personal and financial resources to navigate the federal immigration laws and represent themselves in adversarial removal proceedings. Given the complex nature of immigration proceedings, failure to secure counsel can effectively deny an unaccompanied minor her day in court.
According to the American Bar Association (ABA), which issued a report in July 2015 on this issue, “[t]hese children, many of whom entered the United States during the unprecedented ‘surge’ in 2014, are now facing adversarial removal proceedings opposed by experienced government attorneys, with only about 32% represented by counsel.” The ABA also emphasizes that it is extremely unlikely for an unrepresented child to prevail in immigration court without representation, citing a study which found that children represented by an attorney have a 73% success rate in immigration court, compared to only 15% among unrepresented children.
Facing deportation without adequate legal representation can easily condemn a defenseless child to prolonged detention or forced return to a dangerous country. In fact, as the brief acknowledges: “At least eighty-three deportees from the U.S. have been reported murdered upon their return to Central America since January 2014. One teenager was murdered in 2004 only seventeen days after being deported.” Such grave consequences weigh heavily in favor of mandating government-appointed counsel in cases such as these.
In 2014, tens of thousands of children fled violence and poverty in Mexico and Central America in pursuit of a better life in the United States. In response to the crisis, Attorney General Harris secured millions of dollars and over 10,000 hours in pro bono work to close the legal services gap for unaccompanied children across California. She later supported legislation signed by Governor Brown that allocated $3 million to qualified non-profits to provide legal services for unaccompanied minors. In May 2015, Kids in Need of Defense’s (KIND) awarded Attorney General Harris with the 2015 Vision Award for her work to ensure that unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and entering the U.S. are provided legal representation in immigration proceedings.
Since 2014, Attorney General Harris has convened several roundtables with immigrant rights’ advocates, legal service providers, major international law firms, and other stakeholders to discuss the ongoing need for resources and legal aid for children fleeing violence and seeking refuge in the United States. The most recent convening took place in Los Angeles in December 2015 to discuss the ongoing struggle to meet the legal and social service needs of unaccompanied children and families in California, and across the U.S.
In February 2015, Attorney General Harris created the Bureau of Children’s Justice to enforce criminal and civil laws to hold those who prey on children accountable; work with local, state, and national stakeholders to increase support for vulnerable children; and identify and pursue improvements to policies impacting children. One of the Bureau’s core priorities is human trafficking of vulnerable youth, including foster children.