A case recently argued before the U.S. District Court in Seattle seeks to ensure that every child in removal proceedings is represented by an attorney. The case--styled J.E.F.M., et al. v. Holder--was filed by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and claims that without the assistance of a lawyer, children in Immigration Court cannot receive due process of law.

Some children probably don't need lawyers.

The Complaint notes that despite the efforts of many non-profit organizations, volunteer lawyers, and the government itself, the majority of children who appear before Immigration Judges go unrepresented. It compares the situation of children in Immigration Court with children in juvenile delinquency proceedings:

[The] Supreme Court recognized that when the Government initiates proceedings against children facing juvenile delinquency charges, the Due Process Clause requires the Government to provide those children with legal representation to ensure that the proceedings are fundamentally fair. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 41 (1967). The Court held that “[t]he juvenile needs the assistance of counsel to cope with problems of law, to make skilled inquiry into the facts, to insist upon regularity of the proceedings, and to ascertain whether he has a defense and to prepare and submit it… The Constitution guarantees children this safeguard notwithstanding the civil, rather than criminal, character of juvenile delinquency proceedings.

Immigrants, including immigrant children, are also entitled to Due Process when facing deportation [and Immigration Court proceedings, like juvenile delinquency proceedings, are civil, not criminal]. Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 306 (1993). Both the Constitution and the immigration laws guarantee all children the right to a full and fair removal hearing, including the opportunity to defend against deportation and seek any forms of relief that would enable them to remain in the United States. And just as in juvenile delinquency proceedings, children cannot receive that fair hearing without legal representation.

In terms of the basic legal argument, this seems like a slam dunk: There is no way a child--or even your average non-English-speaking adult--can navigate the Immigration Court system without the assistance of someone who knows what she's doing (i.e., a lawyer). But of course, the hard realities of life in the immigration world are not so simple, and there are a few policy arguments that may carry more weight than the legal claim.

The first policy argument against providing lawyers to unaccompanied minors is cost. I view this argument as a bit of a red herring because I am not convinced that the cost of paying for lawyers is much different than the cost of not paying for lawyers. In cases where the alien is unrepresented, the Immigration Judge and the Trial Attorney must spend significant extra time on the case, and this time obviously costs the government money. I imagine this problem is particularly acute in cases involving children, who cannot easily articulate their claims. Where the child is represented, her attorney can prepare the case, communicate with DHS counsel, and present the case efficiently. Whether paying for this attorney is much more expensive than making the IJ and DHS sort out the case, I don't know. But I would imagine that the difference in cost is not as significant as opponents of providing lawyer might have us believe.

The second policy argument concerns the incentives that providing lawyers will create. To me, this is the strongest policy argument against giving lawyers to children. The so-called "surge" of unaccompanied minors does not correlate with a spike in violence--the source countries have been very violent places for years. Rather, it seems likely that the surge was caused by "pull" factors--maybe the belief that immigration reform in the United States would grant benefits to people, if only they could get here before the reforms were implemented. I have little doubt that providing lawyers to unaccompanied minors would further incentivize children (and everyone else) to come here. Whether this is necessarily a bad thing, I am not sure. On the one hand, many of the young people who have come here face real harm in their home countries. On the other hand, more people coming to seek asylum in the U.S. burdens an already overwhelmed system and causes long delays--and great hardship--for everyone in the system. Of course, there are already many incentives for people to come to the United States: Safety, jobs, family reunification. I am not sure that one more incentive--the guaranteed assistance of an attorney--will make much difference.

Finally, there is the issue of public perception. It's unclear to me where the public stands on asylum in general, and on unaccompanied minors in particular. There are loud voices on both ends of the spectrum: Advocates on one side who essentially believe in open borders and who want to use the asylum system to achieve that goal, versus restrictionists on the other side, like some in Congress who hope to "protect" these children by sending them all home. Frankly, I am not much of a fan of either camp, and I suspect that the general public is also somewhere in the middle. If the asylum system becomes too costly, or too much of an open door, we will likely see a shift in opinion against it, which will be bad for everyone. Whether or not providing lawyers to unaccompanied children will be the straw that breaks the camel's back, I do not know, but given the current mood in Congress, it is a danger that needs to be considered.

All these policy considerations should (theoretically) not count for much with a court of law, but traditionally, such arguments have impacted decision-making in asylum and immigration cases. As advocates have continually expanded the categories of people eligible for asylum and the protections available to asylum seekers, we run the risk of making asylum a victim of its own success. For the sake of the many people who receive protection in our country, I hope that will not be the case.

Originally posted in the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.