What Happens When a Child Goes Through Deportation Proceedings Alone

Photo credit: Spencer Platt


In the weeks since the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy first went into effect, there have been a number of on-going horrors: thousands of families separated with little information, children being held in cages or even reportedly drugged, and parents being reunited with their kids only to find them sick or unresponsive. And some of these unaccompanied children are also being forced to appear in immigration court-some in order to plead their asylum case or risk being deported-alone.

While this particular piece of the puzzle isn't new, it's become a popular topic of conversation in light of the administration's current approach to immigration. There have been recent reports of children as young as one year old appearing in immigration proceedings alone, meaning without their parents and sometimes without lawyers, as it's not required by law for the government to provide them with representation if they can't afford it themselves.

But how exactly does this all work? Laura Barrera, a Bernstein Fellow at the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic who works with immigrant children, explains that first a child is served with a notice to appear, which is essentially a charging document. If a child can't find representation, they're at a disadvantage: they won't have someone to ask the government for proof of the charges, they won't have someone defending them during cross-examination, they won't have someone to help explain legal jargon, and they won't have someone to pull reports and research to prove their home country is unable and unwilling to protect them.

“There’s no way this is due process,” Barrera said. “This is not giving children access to justice.”

The other day, Barrera asked one of her 15-year-old clients, who she represented in immigration court, what she thinks it would have been like if Barrera hadn’t been there: “She was like, 'I couldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have known what to do.'”

Many of these kids, who are seeking asylum due to fear of returning to their home country, have also been physically or sexually abused or have seen their family members killed. Barrera explains these are traumatized kids who then have this extra burden put on them; others might be so young they don’t completely understand the danger they were in back home and don’t have a parent with them to explain.

On top of the trauma, Barrera says it's hard enough for immigration attorneys to keep up with the constantly changing policies (Jeff Sessions has now made it harder for people to get asylum by pleading gang violence) and that many young children don’t even know what it means to enter a country illegally, making the situation nearly impossible.

It's a notion that was highlighted on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver back in April. In an almost-18-minute long video, Oliver discusses immigration courts before showing a few short YouTube videos, in which young American kids are asked the same questions migrant kids would be asked in court to show just how much they don't understand when it comes to law. When one kid is asked which country they'd like to theoretically be deported to, she thinks for a while before definitively declaring: "Pizza."

The videos are all from Amy Maldonado's YouTube channel, a lawyer who's been practicing for 20 years. And they only scratch the surface. “Those videos do not reflect how much distress [kids in court are] in because those people were asking their own children the questions,” she explained. “Even then they got a little bit distressed. Imagine that child without those parents. That’s crazy.”

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