A class-action lawsuit against U.S. immigration policy denying attorneys to children facing deportation will go forward, as a judge sweeps in thousands of new plaintiffs in the West.
Several thousand children facing possible deportation in the Western United States will be swept into a class-action lawsuit filed by immigration-rights advocates seeking to force the government to provide attorneys for children in immigration courts.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly on Friday certified a class in the lawsuit, filed in 2014 by a coalition of immigration-rights groups, that officials say could impact thousands of immigrant children awaiting deportation hearings.
Zilly ordered the class of immigrants swept into the lawsuit to include all children under the age of 18 residing in the 9th Judicial Circuit who are facing so-called “removal proceedings” after June 24. It also includes those children who don’t currently have an attorney and can’t otherwise afford one, and who may be eligible for asylum or protection under the United Nation’s Convention Against Torture, which forbids countries from returning people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured.
“This ruling means that thousands of children will now have a fighting chance at getting a fair day in immigration court,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles.
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“The Obama administration should stop defending its draconian practice of conducting deportation hearings against unrepresented children,” he said.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Nicole Navas, contacted in Washington D.C., said the department would not comment on pending litigation.
The DOJ had asked Zilly to dismiss the lawsuit, alleging that children fleeing oppression or seeking to join their parents who are already in the U.S. do not need to be given an attorney to ensure their hearings are fair, or understand what is happening to them.
Providing a lawyer to every child facing “removal” from the U.S. would cause the entire immigration system to collapse, argued Leon Fresco, a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general from Washington, D.C., who argued the case earlier this year.
“There is no money for it,” Fresco has said.
The lawsuit caused a furor nationally when a senior immigration judge, Jack Weil, said in a deposition in the lawsuit that he had “taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds” who were facing deportation.
Evidence has shown that many of the children travel thousands of miles alone, fleeing persecution or trying to join up with family in the U.S.
“It takes a lot of patience,” said Weil, who is in charge of instructing immigration judges throughout the country. “They get it,” he said.
Weil’s comments generated a firestorm of controversy over a system that does not currently require that children be represented by a lawyer during deportation hearings, but does call for a “full and fair hearing” before an immigration judge.
Fresco has acknowledged that the topic of child immigration is “delicate,” and that many of the plaintiffs are sympathetic. He said the hope is that Congress will address the issue.
“This is a purely legal issue,” he said.
Zilly has been skeptical of a scenario that pits a child against a career prosecutor and an immigration judge, even if it is an administrative hearing, noting at a hearing in March that “we have a Constitution here.”
Testimony and court documents indicate that many of the children involved have traveled from countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, where they have faced persecution. Two of the plaintiffs — all of whom are identified in the lawsuit only by initials — claim they fled to the U.S. after their father was murdered and their mother raped.
The class includes immigrant children living in the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Hawaii and the federal territories of Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands.