Amid a growing court backlog, many children are still not represented by an attorney in the Las Vegas Immigration Court.
As of May 2018, there are 1,472 deportation cases pending against children in the Las Vegas Immigration Court— of those children, 577 are not being represented by an attorney and are forced to go through the court system alone.
Deportation cases against minors is a civil proceeding meaning they do not have the right to be provided a lawyer if they can’t afford one. Any legal counsel a child needs in a deportation case must be paid for on their own.
“We make them face this alone,” said Laura Barrera, an attorney who represents unaccompanied immigrant children in removal proceedings for the UNLV Immigration Clinic. “You can not expect a child to pay for an attorney, that’s just ridiculous. They’re kids.”
The Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which resulted in the separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents at the border, has garnered national attention to the plight of unaccompanied children in deportation proceedings.
The fact that the government does not provide attorneys for juveniles going through deportation proceedings has long been accepted by immigration lawyers, said Michael Kagan, the director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic.
“It’s good to be reminded of how shocking that is to many people. And it should be shocking,” Kagan said.
Few children who appear in immigration court have the financial resources to hire an attorney, still, children and teenagers are sent through deportation proceedings whether or not they have reasonable comprehension of the nature of the proceedings they face.
Juveniles in immigration court will be cross-examined by a Department of Homeland Security attorney regardless of their age or if they have an attorney.
“A child has to defend themselves against a government attorney,” Barrera said. “There’s no way of accessing justice for a child in immigration court without an attorney. It’s just not possible.”
The UNLV Immigration Clinic has 179 open cases — of these, 106 are unaccompanied children.
All unaccompanied minors the clinic represents are asylum seekers who would be in immediate danger if they returned to their country, according to Barrera.
Some of the children they currently represent are 10 years-old or younger. In the past, the clinic has represented children as young as four who would have otherwise faced their asylum cases alone if not for the free service the clinic provides.
Unaccompanied children arrive in Las Vegas for a verity of reasons. Older teenagers often migrate to the U.S alone to escape violence in their countries. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are the top three nations from which juveniles facing deportation in the Las Vegas Immigration Court arrive. Younger children are sometimes separated from their parents or sponsors. Barrera said she represents children whose sponsors have been deported within in the last year.
The Las Vegas Immigration Court has denied about 91 percent of asylum requests from people of all ages since 2005. That’s compared to about 53 percent of cases nationwide, according to data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), using data obtained under a FOIA request.
Immigration lawyers rely on country conditions reports, expert affidavits, and appeals to win asylum cases.
“In an asylum case, the burden of proof is on the applicant. Even if that is a six-year-old child or a teenager they have the burden of proof of showing they meet all the elements of asylum,” Barrera said. “A child or a teenager who is alone in proceedings isn’t going to know how to access those kinds of materials.”
Since 2005, the number of juvenile deportation proceedings that passed through the Las Vegas Immigration Court has totaled 3,522. Of those, 1,540 were not represented by a lawyer. And of those cases in which children were unrepresented, 790 juveniles have been removed from the country.
Judge Munish Sharda, statistically one of the strictest immigration judges in the U.S., presides over the Las Vegas Immigration Court. He ranks 11th out of 293 immigration judges nationwide for his asylum denial rate of 97.3 percent.
In Las Vegas, almost all asylum seekers who are not represented by an attorney are denied. In contrast, a significantly higher proportion of represented asylum seekers are successful.
“I don’t think you can have a fair procedure without having a lawyer in immigration court,” Kagan said. “People are in danger of deportation and they don’t understand how to develop their cases or what all the rules are that defend them. And with kids— it just makes a farce of American justice.”
A wave of support
A June 28 tweet Barrera made about a 5-year-old asylum seeker she is representing in deportation proceedings went viral and amassed more than 93,000 likes and 55,000 retweets, appearing in media outlets like the BBC and the U.K Independent. Almost overnight, Barrera gained more than 3,000 Twitter followers.
My 5-yr-old client can’t tell me what country she is from. We prepare her case by drawing pictures with crayons of the gang members that would wait outside her school. Sometimes she wants to draw ice cream cones and hearts instead. She is in deportation proceedings alone. https://t.co/johWiKbzHh
— Laura Barrera, Esq. (@abogada_laura) June 28, 2018
“I was actually shocked because I definitely don’t think this is normal. But this is daily work for me so the fact that so many people read that and were horrified, it was really encouraging for me,” Barrera said. “This is important work and people want to see attorneys for children and the fact that this is happening isn’t because people don’t care, it’s because people didn’t know.”
She wears a pin on her jacket at all times that reads “This is not normal” to remind herself of the absurdity of current immigration policies that makes children face deportation proceeding alone.
Before 2018, the UNLV Immigration Clinic received a handful of unsolicited individual donations, at most. In recent weeks, after news of children being separated from their parents at the border appalled much of the nation, the clinic received more than $14,000 from more than 300 individual donors— all but a handful of the donations were less than $50.
“We have just been shocked by the outpouring of support to our clinic,” Kagan said. “It’s incredibly encouraging to know that the community wants us to do this work to this extent.”
Barrera joined the UNLV Immigration Clinic as part of an Americorps program, which was created by former Attorney General Eric Holder under the Obama administration in an effort to provide legal aid to unaccompanied children so they wouldn’t have to defend themselves in immigration court alone. Funding for the program did not continue under the new administration.
The UNLV Immigration Clinic was able to continue providing legal aid to unaccompanied children thanks to a five-year, $250,000 donation from Edward M. Bernstein and Associates.
Winning an asylum case for an unaccompanied minor can be a matter of life or death, according to Barrera. Some children the UNLV Immigration Clinic represents have been effectively orphaned in their home countries where most of their family was either murdered or forced to flee because of violence.
“That’s something a lot of people don’t understand. The American government doesn’t care if that child has someone to care for them in their home country or not,” Barrera said. “If they ultimately lose, the U.S government isn’t going to say ‘well we aren’t going to send you back because you don’t have anybody there.’ They will still send them back.”
Kagan said the clinic is in the midst of serious conversations about what needs to be done to expand their services due to the strong support they’ve received and the growing needs of the immigrant community.
In addition to Kagan and Barrera, the clinic’s staff list includes one other attorney and a legal secretary.
“We are in the thick of it and Las Vegas is an entry point for immigrants,” Kagan said. “We’re not on the border geographically but we are an immigrant city and so whatever happens in immigration affects families in Las Vegas.”
The clinic has started receiving calls from parents who were sent to Nevada and had their children taken away from them at the border.
“I can confirm that there are definitely parents who have had children taken away from them who have been sent to Nevada” and who the clinic now represents, Kagan said.
During a deportation hearing in the Las Vegas Immigration Court on July 11 where Barrera served as an attorney, a parent asked to be reunified with their tender-age child before being deported, but neither the judge nor the Department of Homeland Security had any record of the child.
“The Department of Homeland Security said in court that they have no idea where this person’s child was,” Kagan said. “As a parent, I just don’t know what can be more awful than to be told that by a government agency that was directly culpable of that removal.”