Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson has taken up the cause of children who come to the United States in search of a safe haven. He did not have to make this his fight – our fight – but he has, and rightly so.
Ferguson last week filed a friend of the court brief supporting a potential class action lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and other Cabinet officers. Attorneys for eight minors are asking the U.S. District Court in Seattle to assure those immigrants are afforded the same representation they would receive were they U.S. citizens.
Doing otherwise, they argue, would be a violation of Fifth Amendment guarantees of due process, and Immigration and Nationality Act requirements that immigrants be given fair hearings, with the ability to question witnesses and present evidence.
Their basic demand: That their clients – all 18 years old or younger – receive legal representation. Without a lawyer, their odds of making a successful case for remaining in the U.S. are a fraction of those who are able to hire an attorney.
Since 2005, 47 percent of minors with attorneys have been allowed to stay in the country. Only 10 percent of those without a lawyer were successful.
The odds in Washington were worse. There was a 41 percent success rate if an attorney was present, less than 4 percent if one was not.
The explanation is simple: The complexity of immigration law is second only to tax law.
Of the minors involved in the Western Washington case, four are in Washington. Three are siblings whose father, a reformed gang member and pastor, was murdered in the street outside their home while they watched.
Seven years later, when they were old enough to attract the attention of gang recruiters, they escaped to the U.S. When caught, they were placed with a relative. That was 2013.
None has an attorney. With hundreds more like them arriving in the country, some with even more gruesome experiences, there are not enough lawyers who will work for free to cover the caseload. That’s why the attorneys for the group of eight are seeking an order that will assure all get representation.
If the numbers crossing the border had not jumped in the last year, this might not be an issue. But immigration is red meat in today’s political arena.
Fact is, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1903 ruled that noncitizens are guaranteed Fifth Amendment protection. Other precedents suggest that includes court-appointed attorneys for minors who would be overmatched by our legal system.
Many Americans believe the families and unaccompanied children who have recently crossed the border are taking our immigration system for a ride. Until Congress enacts reforms, that’s up to the courts to decide.
“Washington seeks assurance that unaccompanied children residing in this state will enjoy the full protection of the rule of law,” Ferguson says in his brief. We agree.
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