Menendez, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Provide Legal Representation for Minors Appearing in Immigration Court

Menendez, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Provide Legal Representation for Minors Appearing in Immigration Court

    

WASHINGTON. – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) joined Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) and 11 of their Democratic colleagues in introducing the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act to provide unaccompanied immigration children with access to legal representation when they appear in removal proceedings before an immigration judge.

“I am proud to join my colleagues in reintroducing this common sense legislation to give counsel to unaccompanied children. Children who cannot be expected to adequately represent themselves in court and often don’t even know how to self-identify as victims of abuse, crime or human trafficking,” said Senator Menendez. “Studies have shown that a majority of recently arrived unaccompanied minors are eligible for legal protection that would allow for them to remain lawfully in the United States. Even in the Trump era, it is common sense that a child fleeing for her life should be appointed counsel to ensure her due process rights are respected.”

“Unaccompanied children are seeking a better life away from violence, abuse, and terror in their home countries,” said Senator Hirono. “The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act provides these children with an opportunity to tell their stories and assert what legal rights they have. These children should not be expected to represent themselves alone against the federal government, as they are some of the most vulnerable people in our legal system.”

Joining Menendez and Hirono in introducing this legislation were Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the Women’s Refugee Commission, and the First Focus Campaign for Children.

“The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would be life-changing—and life-saving— for children who come alone to the United States fleeing for their lives,” said KIND President Wendy Young. “Without an attorney, children cannot access our incredibly complex immigration system or U.S. protection in any meaningful way. We risk returning children eligible for U.S. protection to grave harm or even death. By ensuring all children are provided attorneys, we uphold due process, fundamental fairness, and access to U.S. protection for an extremely vulnerable population. The Fair Day in Court Act for Kids represents who we truly are as a nation.”

“The Women’s Refugee Commission strongly believes that this bill is an important step toward ensuring that the U.S. adheres to our moral and legal obligation to protect refugee and other vulnerable children seeking our protection,” said Leah Chavla, Policy Advisor at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “No child should have to try to make their case alone, in a language they may not know, in a legal system they are unfamiliar with and may not understand, when the stakes can be life or death.”

“It is our responsibility to ensure that children who are seeking refuge in the United States are not deterred from doing so and that our government provides the best protections and services to these vulnerable children during every step of the process,” said Bruce Lesley, President of the First Focus Campaign for Children. “No child should be forced to face a courtroom alone, especially when the outcome may be a matter of life or death.”

Without some kind of legal representation, many immigrant children are unable to invoke legal protections to which they may be entitled, and even to answer questions that may result in their removal from the United States. Studies show that more than half of children without attorneys are deported. Conversely but only one out of ten with access to counsel are deported. The complex immigration system is difficult enough for an English-speaking adult to navigate with the assistance of an attorney, yet children as young as three years of age are expected to advocate for themselves—a situation that has been challenged as unconstitutional. In non-immigration cases, including criminal cases, children who cannot pay for a lawyer are afforded one at government expense.

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would require that unaccompanied immigrant children be represented by government-appointed counsel during removal proceedings and any subsequent appeals. The Act would mandate that these children are informed of this right, and have access to a lawyer even if they are being detained in a government facility. The Act would also encourage the recruitment of attorneys willing to help these children on a pro bono basis, and would create professional requirements and guidelines for legal representation of these children.