SEATTLE (AP) — A federal judge in Seattle is not stopping the deportation proceedings of eight minors suing the federal government over legal representation.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly denied on Monday a preliminary injunction sought by the minors’ lawyers because the young immigrants, who range from ages 10 to 17, had not exhausted their options through the immigration court system.
But Zilly did not rule on the overall question of whether minors in deportation proceedings have the right to attorneys at government expense.
“The Court is sympathetic to plaintiffs’ plea for legal assistance with the immigration maze in which they now find themselves,” Zilly wrote, later adding, “the relief plaintiffs currently desire, however, is limited to continuance requests that they did not present to the appropriate immigration judge before filing the pending motion.”
In July, immigrant-rights advocacy groups sued the federal government because they say most minors in deportation proceedings lack legal representation and that violates their Fifth Amendment rights. The groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union and the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, are seeking a class-action certification based on the stories from the eight minors, who are from Mexico and Central America and live in California and the Pacific Northwest.
The government wants the lawsuit dismissed. The judge plans to rule next month on the motion to dismiss and whether he has jurisdiction over the question of legal representation.
“We are heartened by the fact that he recognized there are serious constitutional issues at play, and cautiously optimistic that we will be able to demonstrate that the court does indeed have jurisdiction to make a ruling on the ultimate issue, whether these children need attorneys in order to have a fair hearing,” said Matt Adams, an attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
More than 60,000 children and youth have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last year without their parents, many fleeing vicious gangs in Central America. Although the arrivals at the border have dropped sharply, the vast majority of those admitted to the U.S. remain, their cases moving slowly through badly backlogged immigration courts.
The federal government is opposing the lawsuit, saying that ruling in favor of the immigrant groups would attract more minors to travel to the country. Government attorneys have also said Congress would have to appropriate money for attorneys, something unlikely to happen.
“The Court is keenly aware that the other two branches of government are struggling with the question of whether and how to appoint counsel for alien juveniles,” Zilly wrote, acknowledging that the points raised by government attorneys about funding and border-policies will shape his ruling.
Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that argued publicly in favor of legal representation for migrant children arriving unaccompanied at the border. The Department of Justice has launched a $1.8 million program to help legal aid organizations represent migrant children in courts.