March 01, 2018

Hirono Introduces Bill to Provide Legal Representation for Minors Appearing in Immigration Court

Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would Establish Clear Right to Counsel for Unaccompanied Minors in Immigration Court Proceedings

Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) led 12 Senators in introducing the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act to provide unaccompanied children with access to legal representation when they appear in removal proceedings before an immigration judge.

“Unaccompanied children are seeking a better life away from violence, abuse, and terror in their home countries,” said Senator Hirono. “The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act provides these children with an opportunity to tell their stories and assert what legal rights they have. These children should not be expected to represent themselves alone against the federal government, as they are some of the most vulnerable people in our legal system.”

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act is cosponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

“The right to legal counsel is a central tenet of our justice system. Yet unaccompanied immigrant children as young as 3 and 4 years old are expected to navigate the cold complexities of our legal system with no one to help them through the process,” said Senator Blumenthal. “The consequences of sending these children back to the countries they are fleeing can be literally life-and-death. We have a moral obligation to ensure that that decision is made with due process, including access to an attorney.”

“The influx of unaccompanied children coming to the United States is a humanitarian crisis,” said Senator Cortez Masto. “These children are fleeing some of the most violent countries in the world to escape poverty, hunger, slavery and human trafficking. Kids as young as three or four years old have to face a judge on their own while seeking asylum. Imagine being that child, or your own child having to legally defend themselves without knowing the language, let alone the legal system. A large majority of kids who do not have legal representation are deported, and in many cases, killed, sexually assaulted, or forced into human bondage upon their return to their countries of origin. The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act will ensure that no child fleeing for his or her life has to face a judge on their own and that they get fair trial in court with the help of an appointed counsel.”

“Nearly 20 years ago I watched as a young Chinese girl who had emerged from a container ship was shackled and crying before an immigration judge. She couldn’t speak English and didn’t understand what the judge was saying. After working for several years, we were able to pass a law to ensure immigrant children like that young Chinese girl would be treated with respect and not detained indefinitely, but we’re still working to ensure they’re guaranteed access to lawyers,” said Senator Feinstein. “Immigrant children as young as three years old are still being forced to represent themselves in court every day, denying them a fair shot at making their case against being deported. These children deserve access to lawyers, and that’s what our bill would provide.”

“I am proud to join my colleagues in reintroducing this common sense legislation to give counsel to unaccompanied children. Children who cannot be expected to adequately represent themselves in court and often don’t even know how to self-identify as victims of abuse, crime or human trafficking,” said Senator Menendez. “Studies have shown that a majority of recently arrived unaccompanied minors are eligible for legal protection that would allow for them to remain lawfully in the United States. Even in the Trump era, it is common sense that a child fleeing for her life should be appointed counsel to ensure her due process rights are respected.”

“Right now, thousands of children flee violence in their communities and come to the United States in search of safety and a better life. Many of these kids wind up being deported without ever even talking to a lawyer because the government is not required to provide counsel. Our country should be ashamed,” said Senator Murphy. “Congress needs to take action immediately to ensure that every child who comes to this country alone is not forced to defend themselves in immigration court. I urge my colleagues to pass the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act.”

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the Women’s Refugee Commission, and the First Focus Campaign for Children.

“The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would be life-changing—and life-saving— for children who come alone to the United States fleeing for their lives,” said KIND President Wendy Young. “Without an attorney, children cannot access our incredibly complex immigration system or U.S. protection in any meaningful way. We risk returning children eligible for U.S. protection to grave harm or even death. By ensuring all children are provided attorneys, we uphold due process, fundamental fairness, and access to U.S. protection for an extremely vulnerable population. The Fair Day in Court Act for Kids represents who we truly are as a nation.”

“The Women’s Refugee Commission strongly believes that this bill is an important step toward ensuring that the U.S. adheres to our moral and legal obligation to protect refugee and other vulnerable children seeking our protection,” said Leah Chavla, Policy Advisor at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “No child should have to try to make their case alone, in a language they may not know, in a legal system they are unfamiliar with and may not understand, when the stakes can be life or death.”

“It is our responsibility to ensure that children who are seeking refuge in the United States are not deterred from doing so and that our government provides the best protections and services to these vulnerable children during every step of the process,” said Bruce Lesley, President of the First Focus Campaign for Children. “No child should be forced to face a courtroom alone, especially when the outcome may be a matter of life or death.”

Without some kind of legal representation, many immigrant children are unable to invoke legal protections to which they may be entitled, and even to answer questions that may result in their removal from the United States. Studies show that more than half of children without attorneys are deported. Conversely but only one out of ten with access to counsel are deported. The complex immigration system is difficult enough for an English-speaking adult to navigate with the assistance of an attorney, yet children as young as three years of age are expected to advocate for themselves—a situation that has been challenged as unconstitutional. In non-immigration cases, including criminal cases, children who cannot pay for a lawyer are afforded one at government expense.

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would require that unaccompanied immigrant children be represented by government-appointed counsel during removal proceedings and any subsequent appeals. The Act would mandate that these children are informed of this right, and have access to a lawyer even if they are being detained in a government facility. The Act would also encourage the recruitment of attorneys willing to help these children on a pro bono basis, and would create professional requirements and guidelines for legal representation of these children.

In 2014, Senator Hirono led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to Texas border facilities to call attention to the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied child migrants arriving from Central America, many of whom were fleeing violence in their home countries. In 2016, she witnessed immigration proceedings involving children firsthand at a Baltimore immigration court and met with a non-profit organization that provides legal and support services to unaccompanied child migrants. She was an original co-sponsor of the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act in the 114th Congress.