In the complex debate over illegal immigration, one population goes largely unnoticed: the thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children who make their way to the US every year. Some of these children come to find work and send money back to their families, while others have no family left in their home countries and travel to the US looking for relatives to care for them. Many more come to escape violence from drug traffickers and gangs, which often try to recruit even very young children. Unlike most undocumented adults apprehended at the border, these children are taken to shelters and given an opportunity to try to stay in the US.
But, just like undocumented adult immigrants, unaccompanied children face a number of barriers to gaining legal status in the US. While every person facing potential deportation has the privilege of representation, such representation must come at no expense to the government. Pro bono legal services for unaccompanied children are in short supply, and very few of these children have the resources to hire their own counsel. This means that most children in immigration proceedings are left to their own devices—and even those as young as 6 must navigate the complex immigration system alone.
In this regard, immigration law differs from all other aspects of juvenile law in which young people have a right to appointed counsel or a guardian ad litem (a child welfare professional charged with advocating on the child’s behalf). Under current immigration law, children are treated no differently from adults. Those who seek relief from deportation must grapple with a system that does little to accommodate their special needs.
For example, unaccompanied children may be eligible to seek asylum—but must satisfy the same requirements as adults. That is, they must characterize their experience in their home countries as “persecution,” presenting specific facts that fall into a narrow legal definition. Without an understanding of the socio-political conditions in their home country, this is an impossible task. Without an attorney, this form of relief is virtually unattainable for an unaccompanied child.
That a child is unable to effectively represent himself or herself in immigration court has been recognized by the American Bar Association, as well as legislators and policymakers across the country. The government provides limited funding for legal services providers to appear alongside unaccompanied children as “friends of the court” in some circumstances, and pro bono attorneys represent thousands of unaccompanied minors on their applications to stay in the US each year. But too many still slip through the cracks: unable to act as their own lawyers, they are deported to countries where they may have no means of support, and where they may be targeted for exploitation or even death.
The immigration system for unaccompanied children is in many respects an improvement over the system that applies to adults. But it is by no means perfect. Advocates must continue to press for the establishment of a system that provides appointed counsel and guardians ad litem for unaccompanied children. Once that fundamental safeguard is in place, broader reforms that create sufficient child-specific standards in immigration law should follow.