U.S. courts should stop picking on immigrant kids

Immigrant children and their mothers arrive in Guatemala after being deported from the United States in 2014. The migrants had come to the U.S. to flee a humanitarian crisis in their homeland.

Story highlights

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy: Many children facing deportation are forced to proceed before a judge without a lawyer.
  • Risks faced by these vulnerable children are life-threatening and they warrant extra care, he says

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)A bedrock principle of our justice system is ensuring a fair day in court, something that is especially important for children who cannot advocate for themselves.

It is common sense that in our immigration courts, where children fleeing devastating violence abroad often find themselves, kids need lawyers to advocate on their behalf. After all, lawyers go to school for years to understand the nuances of our legal system.
    So how could we possibly expect children to navigate court proceedings on their own?
    And yet, each year, the United States government does just that. In immigration court, in case after case, a trained federal prosecutor represents the interests of the government while too many children facing deportation are forced to proceed before a judge without a lawyer.
    These children are escaping horrific, heartbreaking violence in places like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They face murder rates many times higher than children in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their governments are unable or unwilling to protect them. They come here seeking safety and refuge.
    And right now, we are failing them.
    Patrick Leahy
    A federal immigration judge recently claimed that three- and four-year old migrant children can be taught immigration law and competently represent themselves in court. "They get it," he said.
    I do not. The judge's words stopped me in my tracks. And they made me angry.
    It would be bad enough if they were just the mutterings of a rogue judge. But they are not. To the contrary, it is the longstanding policy of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to pursue immigration cases against children, even very young children, without lawyers. And it is a longstanding executive policy they are actively defending in federal court, right now.
    This practice defies common sense, and runs contrary to our most basic understanding of due process. It is morally indefensible. And it must stop.
    The United States government should not be forcing children to defend themselves against trained lawyers. The Department of Homeland Security must stop prioritizing these cases, and the Department of Justice must stop pushing them forward. Immigration judges must, for their part, stop presiding over such unfair cases until representation can be found for children.
    Having a lawyer matters. And it really matters for these kids. A recent study by Syracuse University found that in almost 75 percent of cases in which a child was represented, the court allowed the child to remain in the United States. Where the child appeared alone, without representation, only 15 percent were allowed to stay.
    For many of these kids, that difference means receiving asylum or being sent back into the hands of their persecutors. These children have often suffered significant trauma along their journey to the U.S. and face some of the most extreme violence in the world in their home countries. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, El Salvador and Guatemala have the highest child murder rates in the world.
    If the United States is to be a beacon of hope around the world, our actions have to match our ideals. The risks faced by these vulnerable children are life threatening, and these kids warrant extra care. The least we can do is give them a fair chance to make their case in court.
    Let's fix this policy. Let's stand with the children.