(CNN)Immigrant children are not entitled to free court-appointed lawyers to represent them during their removal proceedings, a federal appeals court in California has ruled.
Immigrant children don't have the right to free lawyers, court rules
"The panel held that it is not established law that alien minors are categorically entitled to government-funded, court-appointed counsel," according to Monday's unanimous decision, written by Judge Consuelo Callahan.
The case was brought by a teenager, identified only as C.J., who had fled gang threats in Honduras. His asylum claim was rejected by an immigration judge and he then appealed the case to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
His lawyers, from the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups, argued that a provision in immigration law implicitly requires the government to provide lawyers for immigrant minors.
But the appeals court rejected the claim and said it was "a privilege that Congress has not conferred."
C.J. and his mother fled Honduras after the teenager was repeatedly pressured to join the Mara gang. After he refused, the youth said the Maras threatened him at gunpoint.
He and his mother came to the US in 2014 and were apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security four days after their arrival. C.J. was 13 years old at the time. He was placed into removal proceedings based on illegal entry, according to the court.
His mother told the court she couldn't afford a lawyer, so she represented C.J. at his immigration hearings. She filed an asylum application for her son, but it contained "threadbare statements in support of C.J.'s asylum claim and much of what is written is borderline inscrutable and non-responsive," according to the court.
C.J. and his mother told the immigration judge they were afraid to go back to Honduras because of the gang threats. But the immigration judge concluded that C.J. didn't establish eligibility for asylum, and the appeals court on Monday agreed.
The ACLU said it will seek a reversal of Monday's decision.
"If allowed to stand, the decision means that thousands of refugee children felling persecution will never get a fair day in court for their claims of asylum," said Ahilan Arulanantham, the lead attorney and legal director for the ACLU of Southern California.
But the court also noted that granting free legal representation to undocumented minors would create a financial problem for the government.
"Mandating free court appointed counsel could further strain an already overextended immigration system," Callahan wrote. The US government estimated that appointing counsel for apprehended minors would cost $276.1 million a year, she wrote.
The number of children fleeing violence in Central America is rising, Arulanantham said. The biggest increase started around 2014 as a product of acute violence in three countries in particular -- Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, he said.
Though the panel ruled against C.J., the judges expressed sympathy for his situation.
"We sympathize with his personal plight, as C.J. appears to have displayed courage in the face of serious adversity. But while 'our hearts are with [C.J.],' the law does not support his requested relief," their decision said.