Viewpoint

Insanity of 3-year-olds in immigration court

Aaron Marin Lopez rallies with his family in Durham last month.
Aaron Marin Lopez rallies with his family in Durham last month. AP

Jack Weil, an immigration judge in Seattle, asserts that 3- and 4-year-old children have no need for attorney representation in deportation proceedings because they can be taught immigration law well enough to represent themselves in court.

Can you imagine, after reading “Goodnight Moon” with your 3-year-old daughter, tucking her into bed and telling her excitedly, “Precious, tomorrow is going to be an exciting day, we are going to learn immigration law! And it is going to be taught to you in a foreign language! What fun! And if you don’t learn enough, you will lose in court and a man in a black robe is going to make you get on an airplane by yourself and you may never see me again. But we will try hard to teach you all about immigration and deportation before you go to court. Sleep tight and sweet dreams!”

Weil has been justifiably excoriated by both legal and child experts because, of course, in our justice system we should not expect this expertise from any child. Immigration law is a maze of state and federal procedures and processes that lawyers like myself who have been practicing for decades find mystifying. And the children appearing in these proceedings almost never speak English. It is unimaginable to expect them to adequately represent themselves.

Weil’s statements, made in response to a case where advocates want the government to be required to provide legal representation for children who cannot afford it, are not only of national interest but also local concern. Charlotte houses the immigration court for North and South Carolina, and in 2014, thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children arrived in North Carolina. The flow of these children continues as resistance to violent gangs and a complex combination of other issues in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala drives children from their home countries. Often the children are targeted by gangs and live in poverty, and many face other issues, like abandonment and abuse.

There currently is no right to legal representation for children in immigration court, where proceedings will determine if they can remain in the U.S. These children are expected to appear in court where a process they do not understand in a language they do not speak is set in motion to return them to the country from which they have fled.

Children arriving in the Carolinas are luckier than most. When an unexpected flood of more than 2,000 children arrived in North Carolina last year, Charlotte-area nonprofit Legal Services of Southern Piedmont understood the critical and immediate need for legal assistance. Research shows that nine out of 10 children without representation are deported, while almost half with representation are allowed to remain in the United States with their guardian. Without adequate representation, children who may have had a viable form of relief are subject to deportation without having a fighting chance. LSSP was positioned and committed to change that. And our community was in a position to respond in an inspiring and noble way.

Supported by local lawyer associations and law firms, private pro bono attorneys, foundations and community supporters, LSSP quickly created the Safe Child Immigrant Project. LSSP leadership raised local financial support to match a national funder which provided for the immediate hiring of three full-time bilingual immigration attorneys. Local pro bono attorneys were also trained to assist in these cases.

More than 250 children have been provided legal representation to help them avoid deportation back to a life of squalor, abuse, and gang death threats. Despite this progress, nearly 2,000 children remain on the court’s docket.

In Charlotte, our legal and philanthropic communities have responded to this need to protect our community’s most vulnerable children. For that we should all be proud. And we can rest a bit easier knowing that, at least in Charlotte, no parents are worrying about whether their 3- or 4-year-old can learn immigration law.

Farthing, a partner at Parker Poe in Charlotte, is president and chairman of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont. To learn more about the Safe Child Immigrant Project, visit www.lssp.org.

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