As courts overwhelmed to handle cases, more immigrant children left without legal representation

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As President Donald Trump ramps up immigration enforcement through large-scale raids, many more people, especially immigrant children, may find themselves deported because they do not have lawyers.

Starting in late 2013, an uptick in gang violence in Central America began driving a large number of unaccompanied alien children to the Mexican-U.S. border. Tens of thousands of children, sometimes unaccompanied by a guardian, turned to the United States to plead of asylum or some other form of humanitarian status for a chance to legally stay in the country. Because of the swell in the immigration court system, the former Obama administration put these children on a so-called “rocket docket,” calling on immigration judges to adjudicate their cases as rapidly as possible, often to the consternation of immigrant advocates and lawyers.

Nearly four years after these children began showing up on the U.S. southern border, there remains an overwhelming number of pending cases of these unaccompanied kids that still have to be adjudicated — 88,069 to be exact as of August 2017, according to data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. There were so many children that the Juan Osuna, the director of the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, said their cases put “unprecedented pressure” on the court system.

Culled from a Freedom of Information Act request from the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the data published Thursday found that there were fewer new cases being heard for the first time in 2017. The current backlog of 88,069 cases is “four times the number of new UAC cases, or unaccompanied alien children, that reached the court during the first eleven months of [the 2017 fiscal year].”

The TRAC data also revealed that immigrant children whose cases were seen for the first time in 2017 were less likely to get legal representation than their peers in previous years. According to TRAC, three out of four children whose cases originated in 2017 did not have lawyers. That’s almost a threefold jump from 2015, when three out ten children were unrepresented.

(CREDIT: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University)

Multiple reports have shown that people have a better chance of winning their cases when they are able to have a legal representative help them navigate through the immigration court system. According to a 2016 American Immigration Council report, immigrants fare better at every stage of the adjudication process if they are represented by a legal representative, including release from detention and access to relief from deportation that they may not have been aware of.

Not all immigrants are lucky enough to have legal representation, however. While individuals have the right to counsel in the immigration court system, they must also bear the financial burden and knowledge of obtaining a lawyer. The civil court system, which differs from the criminal justice system in many ways, does not guarantee the constitutional protections of the Sixth Amendment, or the right to legal representation.

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