Unaccompanied minors are representing themselves in immigration court, alarming advocates

In 2023, only 56% of unaccompanied minors were represented by counsel.

June 3, 2024, 4:09 AM

When Brian Arevalo arrived at immigration court earlier this year, the stakes -- possible deportation -- could not have been higher. But that morning in April, when he faced a federal immigration judge, he faced a more pressing concern.

"Did you find an attorney?" Judge Dinesh Verma asked him.

Arevalo, now 18, shook his head no. He had been searching in vain for legal representation for months -- one of tens of thousands of unaccompanied young migrants representing themselves before federal immigration judges, and one of dozens who appeared before Judge Verma that day in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Arevalo, who was granted a three-month extension, is due back in court in June. He says he has not yet found an attorney.

Unlike every other court in the land, immigration courts don't guarantee defendants -- even minors -- the right to counsel. A shortage of attorneys is just one of a litany of issues crippling this crucial function of the American justice system, experts say.

In 2023, only 56% of unaccompanied minors in immigration courts were represented by counsel, according to data from the Department of Justice. While the Biden administration has recently made moves to tackle the growing backlog of asylum cases, experts say the recent action by the White House is narrow in scope and won't help the glut of unaccompanied, unrepresented minors.

Arevalo told ABC News he arrived in the U.S. from Mexico two years ago when he was 16. He said he was forced to leave his parents and siblings due to the growing violence in his home country.

PHOTO: Migrants cross the Rio Grande into the United States at the US-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, April 24, 2024.
Migrants cross the Rio Grande into the United States at the US-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, April 24, 2024.
Justin Hamel/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"I cannot go back," Arevalo said in Spanish.

If Arevalo returns to court without an attorney, he will have to stand before Judge Verma by himself and navigate the complex court system on his own.

"The stakes are incredibly high and the consequences are severe," said former immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks.

Marks, the former president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said she has been vocal for decades about juveniles having legal representation in immigration court.

"Those who appear in Immigration Court unrepresented are often uneducated in our language, culture and law, but are nevertheless required to present their claims unaided, while the DHS is represented by skilled government attorneys," Marks wrote on behalf of NAIJ back in 2016 when she was president of the organization.

Every Monday, dozens of unaccompanied minors like Arevalo make their way to a federal court in Hyattsville, Maryland, to make their case before a judge on why they should remain in the U.S.

Those who have attorneys -- roughly less than half -- will make their case first. Then the judge will call on the rest, and spend most of the time hearing from unaccompanied minors who couldn't obtain legal representation.

The issue, experts and advocates told ABC News, is that without a lawyer, minors are left to navigate the different avenues of relief alone, fill out documents in a foreign language, and argue their case before a judge.

"How are they going to know, especially with maybe only an elementary school education, how to research country conditions, political struggles in their own land and how it puts them at risk, and corroborate their testimony?" Marks told ABC News. "All of that is extremely important."

When Arevalo stood before Judge Verma in April, he said that he had recently been a victim of a robbery and that he helped law enforcement find one of the perpetrators.

Verma told Arevalo that he was possibly eligible for a special visa that is available to noncitizens who assist law enforcement. A lawyer, Verma said, would be crucial to help Arevalo with his case.

Asked by ABC News in late May if he has applied for the visa that the judge recommended, Arevalo said he "wouldn't know where to begin."

"I have to work and I don't understand all the forms and documents," Arevalo said in Spanish.

"It is crazy to think that a kid could make the case for protection on their own without a lawyer," said Jennifer Podkul, the vice president for policy and advocacy for Kids In Need of Defense, a nonprofit group providing legal aid to minors. "We've put them into this complex deportation proceeding and it doesn't really make any sense."

A shortage of lawyers

The total immigration court backlog of children and adults has surged to 3.6 million cases in 2024, according to the Department of Justice said. There are roughly 600 judges in 68 courts across the U.S. handling millions of these cases, according to the DOJ.

With hundreds of cases being added every day, some private law firms and nonprofit groups like Kids In Need of Defense provide pro bono representation for minors across the U.S. -- but experts say it's not enough.

"A lot of organizations are at capacity and can't take cases and have to be put on a waiting list," Podkul said. "And judges can't necessarily just keep giving these kids continuances."

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, only about 30% of all migrants are able to obtain legal representation.

PHOTO: Migrant people seeking asylum in the United States demonstrate on the Rio Grande river to ask for authorization to enter the country, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico, April 25, 2024.
Migrant people seeking asylum in the United States demonstrate on the Rio Grande river to ask for authorization to enter the country, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, state of Chihuahua, Mexico, April 25, 2024.
Herika Martinez/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

"The Court backlog has increased more than threefold since September 2019," the research group said. "This also means that three times as many immigrants need attorneys."

"As the immigration caseload has risen so quickly, and there have been more immigration judges added, that puts a stress on the private bar as well as the pro bono bar to grow at an equal pace," Marks told ABC News. "And so the resources are very strained in the legal community."

For unaccompanied minors, having an attorney could be the determinative factor as to whether they get to stay in the U.S. or are forced to return to their home country.

"Immigration judges are 100 times more likely to grant relief to unaccompanied children with legal representation than to those without it," a 2021 Congressional Research Service report found.

New immigration court docket for adults

The growing backlog of cases for asylum seekers has become so dire it has garnered attention from the White House. Last week, the Biden administration announced a new process to adjudicate immigration cases for those who recently entered the U.S. without authorization.

The new docket aims to cut the time it takes to decide asylum claims "from years to months," officials said.

"We are instituting with the Department of Justice a process to accelerate asylum proceedings so that individuals who do not qualify for relief can be removed more quickly and those who do qualify can achieve protection sooner," said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in a press release.

While some advocates praised the move by the Biden administration as a step forward, the latest action by the White House does not directly help unaccompanied minors like Arevalo obtain legal representation.

"For now, I'm going to focus on work and we will see what happens at court," Arevalo told ABC News.

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