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Truthdiggers of the Week: The Lawyers Suing to Protect Refugee Children

Posted on Jul 13, 2014

By Peter Z. Scheer

  Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. AP/Eric Gay

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Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

After fleeing a country with the worst murder rate in the world, and traveling more than a thousand miles while surviving corrupt officials, cartels and garden variety rape, an unaccompanied Honduran child would probably find herself in a courtroom trying to explain, via a translator, why she can’t go back.

It’s a story that is being repeated thousands of times as a tsunami of children undertake the lethal journey north because staying at home has become an insane proposition. According to NPR, more than 52,000 children have been picked up since October, a number that is 10 times what it was in 2009. Reports expect the number of refugees to double by year-end.

According to the U.N., Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have the first, fifth- and sixth-highest murder rates in the world. Since 1995, Honduras and El Salvador have exclusively held the title of murder capital, except for one year when both countries were briefly overtaken by Colombia.


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It seems obvious then that these children would be welcomed as refugees and, like so many huddled masses before them, stitched into the fabric of the great American story. The opposite is happening. President Obama, under pressure from anti-immigrant reactionaries, is moving to deport the children as quickly as possible. To do so, they cannot be classified as refugees.

The fate of these children will in all likelihood be decided by an immigration judge in an immigration court. If the child is Mexican, he or she will be deported without much consideration, due to immigration law. If not, a prosecutor will argue that the child should go home. Unlike undocumented immigrants who are accused of an actual crime, the state does not recognize that these defendants have a right to an attorney.

As Talia Inlender of Public Counsel explained on Truthdig Radio, “We have a courtroom where the government pays for a judge who has lots of years of training and experience in the law. They pay for a prosecutor who is a trained attorney, also lots of years and experience and training in immigration law. And then you have a child, who is sitting on the other side of the courtroom, alone, feet dangling often off of their chairs, with nobody to help give them a voice in court.”

As Bill Boyarsky wrote, the president has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds, but only a small pittance of that money will go to defending the children. The vast majority of it will help provide for their detention and, one expects, deportation back to the murder capitals of the world.

The United Nations is urging the U.S. and Mexico to recognize the migrants as refugees, but political momentum, not to mention a staff of prosecutors, is working against the kids.

A coalition of legal and immigrants’ rights groups, including the ACLU and Public Counsel, has filed a class-action lawsuit to change the rules.

They are demanding that the government provide trained advocates to argue on behalf of the children.

“If we believe in due process for children in our country, then we cannot abandon them when they face deportation in our immigration courts,” the ACLU’s Ahilan Arulanantham said in a statement.

For their efforts to honor the promise etched into the Statue of Liberty, to protect innocent children fleeing for their lives, and to make the world just a little bit more fair, we honor Public Counsel, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Council, and K&L Gates LLP as our Truthdiggers of the Week.


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