The influx of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is not a spontaneous occurrence. This forced migration has accelerated over the course of several years. Poverty, corruption, impunity, violence and weak civil institutions, as well as damaging U.S. foreign policies, have made these countries unsafe for the families living there. Children are migrating to the United States alone because they and their families see this movement as the best way to protect them. Yet, despite the dire conditions women and children are escaping, and the perils they navigate to reach the United States, they have been met with scorn from legislators and other elected officials nationwide.
Apparently in response to this outcry—even though poll numbers suggest the U.S. public favors granting migrant children refugee status “if authorities determine it is not safe for them to return to their home countries”—the Obama administration has accelerated removal proceedings for unaccompanied migrant children designating them for “expedited removal.”
Placing children “first in line” will make it exceedingly difficult for them to prepare their applications for asylum. First, migrant children with pending deportation proceedings against them do not have a right to legal counsel under U.S. law. Therefore, pro bono lawyers and legal groups must volunteer to represent cases for children who cannot afford attorneys (as nearly all of these children cannot).
Second, instead of having several months to make a case for asylum, migrant children will appear before a judge “within 21 days after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials file a deportation case against them.” (Some have had less than 48 hours to do so.) This is not sufficient time to find counsel or be assigned a pro bono attorney and prepare their cases for asylum. Though the legal community is scrambling to provide counsel to as many children as possible, there just are not enough lawyers to process the thousands of cases being put on these “rocket dockets.”
Based on the groundbreaking report, Children on the Run, published this year by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, it is clear that a large number of these children do have valid claims as refugees. Gang violence in El Salvador and Honduras knows no bounds. Reported gender-based violence in Central America includes feminicide, rape, sexual assault and other violent crimes perpetrated by gangs. Besides these push factors, the majority of children migrating to the U.S. have parents or other relatives residing here. However, because most children do not have adequate representation in immigration proceedings, they are unable to make their cases for appropriate relief.
Migrant children need adequate time and legal representation to argue a defense against deportation. The federal government policy expediting removal proceedings is inhumane and unjust, and will put thousands of children in mortal danger.