As the Obama administration considers how to manage the influx of tens of thousands of illegal migrant children who have crossed the southern United States border, immigrant rights advocates are seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the Justice Department from pursuing deportations unless the minors have legal representation.
According to Politico
, a lawsuit was filed in a Seattle federal court late Thursday on behalf of six children from Guatemala and El Salvador. The suit argues that the children would be prevented from getting a fair immigration hearing unless given legal representation.
"The legal arguments go to the heart of the border debate in Congress and seek to establish a larger class-action case with major national implications," Politico said.
The case brought by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle and groups within the American Civil Liberties Union, comes as Congress and the president grapple with how to address the issue of border security.
Republicans are pressing for two laws to be changed to enable faster deportations, and would deny government funding for attorneys for illegal children. Current federal law stipulates that immigrants will have the opportunity to have an attorney but "at no government expense."
Senate Democrats and the president support expanding funding for legal resources, such as the hiring of new immigration judges and attorneys.
"The Justice Department is trying to find some middle ground while taking new steps to assist in providing counsel for the children. But officials privately admit that these initiatives are only just starting and fall far short of what is needed if the children are to have counsel," Politico reported.
Nevertheless, the department has been working toward reducing wait times for hearings, which continue to be required under federal law, in part by creating "rocket dockets," or master legal calendars to process cases faster, according to Politico.
"The six children seeking relief through this motion, like so many others who have fled violence in Central America, are now under imminent threat of being deported, potentially to their death, because of the administration's misguided 'rocket docket' policy for child refugees," Ahilan Arulanantham, an ACLU attorney based in Los Angeles, told Politico.
"To force them to defend themselves against a trained prosecutor without legal assistance violates due process and our most basic values as a nation."
According to government records, 40 percent of child migrants left the country without legal counsel, Politico said, and immigrant rights groups are worried that the percentage will increase as the ratio of attorneys to migrants diminishes.
In the lawsuit, all six children have immigration hearings scheduled for September but have not been assured that their cases will be delayed due to lack of legal representation.
"Each of these children desperately fears deportation, and each of them has a … defense," the filing says, according to Politico. "But they do not know how to defend themselves under the immigration laws."
The injunction petitions the court to either force the government to give the children more time to find legal representation or "to provide them with representation if it wishes to proceed against them expeditiously," Politico reported.
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