About 1 in 10 unaccompanied children who go through deportation proceedings in Arizona have legal representation — and those who do are far more likely to be allowed to remain in the country, federal data from the last decade show.
The Transactional Access Records Clearinghouse made case-by-case data it received from the Executive Office of Immigration Review available on its website Tuesday.
The data include every immigration court case given a “juvenile” flag from October 2004 through June 2014, but none where authorities are trying to deport a parent and child together. Cases where children are deported to Mexico without a court hearing are also excluded, as are the cases of children who have already been reunited with a parent in the United States.
Immigrant-rights activists interpret the data to bear out a long-held worry: The immigration system is so complex that it is nearly impossible for a child alone to navigate toward a beneficial outcome. The stakes are particularly high when children have fled abuse or persecution in their home country.
The Florence Project, the only organization in Arizona to provide free legal services to immigrants in detention, regularly holds “know your rights” sessions for recent border crossers who are detained, including children.
The workshops include explanations of the court system and the types of immigration relief available, but much of what the attorneys do with children is role-play. Children practice speaking in front of a “judge” to reduce their fear, said Lauren Dasse, the group’s executive director.
The project’s attorneys provide representation for some children, depending on the details of their case, and they refer children to other organizations if they are transferred or moved to another part of the country — a common occurrence in these types of cases.
While children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have made up the majority of the unaccompanied children cases in the Arizona courts for years, the impact of the greater youthfulness of children in the past year’s influx is hard to measure. Some children found to have crossed the border in Texas without a parent were as young as 2 years old, according to news reports.
The share of unaccompanied children without representation in Arizona immigration courts has not fallen. Instead, it grew. The TRAC data show that about 89 percent of children in deportation proceedings so far this fiscal year did not have an attorney, compared to 82 percent the fiscal year before.
Over the whole period, only 467 of the 4,281 unaccompanied juvenile cases that went through in Arizona immigration courts featured a child with an attorney. Nearly half of those cases ended with a child being granted asylum or some other immigration relief that would allow them to stay in the U.S.
By contrast, only 5 percent of the children without representation were awarded such relief. More than 85 percent were deported or chose to voluntarily return to their home country.
More legal representation for unaccompanied children may be coming. The Obama administration recently launched a $2 million AmeriCorps program that would assign 100 attorneys and paralegals to helping unaccompanied children through the courts.
Of the $3.7 billion in emergency funding the administration has asked Congress to approve, about $15 million was slated for direct legal representation for these children.
A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups has also sued, alleging the government is violating due process by allowing some children to go through the court system alone.
“The fact that you have a neutral judge is not enough,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “You have an inherently adversarial system, and the government pays to represent itself in every case.”
“If we want to make sure we don’t send people back to persecution, torture and death,” he said, “then we need to get it right.”