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Administration Fights Case That Would Assign Lawyers To Minors Seeking Asylum


In a Seattle federal court today, a battle will play out between immigrant advocates and the Obama administration. That issue is whether unaccompanied minors who are seeking asylum have the right to a court-appointed lawyer. In their lawsuit, advocates argue this is part of a minor's constitutional right to a fair hearing. The Obama administration disagrees. Here's NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: At the heart of the case are three siblings who are living in the state of Washington after fleeing their native El Salvador about two years ago. Their father was a former gang member there who found God and became a pastor, helping others to leave the gangs. But the gangs resented his work, and they retaliated.

BOB EGGBLATT: Their father was murdered. You know, their mother was forced to flee.

GONZALES: That's Bob Eggblatt (ph), a Presbyterian pastor and family friend. The three siblings, who range in ages from 10 to 16, were forced to flee, too, when the gangs gave them a deadly ultimatum.

EGGBLATT: You know, and so they would have - it would've definitely been either forced into the gang or killed had they not left. And if they were deported now, they would likely be killed.

GONZALES: The siblings' story is not uncommon. Many children fleeing violence and coercion come to the United States seeking asylum. But like tens of thousands of other unaccompanied minors, they don't have a lawyer to represent them. And that's what this case is all about.

Ahilan Arulanantham is an attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. He says without legal help, the minors have little hope of winning asylum.

AHILAN ARULANANTHAM: In our view, the Constitution requires hearings, particularly deportation hearings, where peoples' lives are at stake, to be fundamentally fair. And you cannot have a fundamentally fair hearing on the asylum claim of 14 or 15 year olds from Central America unless they have representation.

GONZALES: The ACLU and other groups say without court-appointed lawyers, the three siblings and eight other minors are being denied due process of the law. The suit also presses the government to provide lawyers for thousands of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. But the Obama administration doesn't agree that the minors have a right to a lawyer at the taxpayers' expense.

In a federal court hearing in Seattle last fall, a lawyer for the Justice Department, Leon Fresco, said the government can't afford to provide a lawyer to every immigrant youth, and to do so would create more problems.

LEON FRESCO: Which is that if a person knows that I'm a minor, I come to the United States, I cannot be removed because there's no money for counsel. That is free education for all those children being funded by localities and by the states. That is whatever medical claims that those children need, plus an insecure border because you've now sent the message internationally that no one here is going to be removed.

GONZALES: Hiroshi Motomura teaches immigration law at the UCLA law school. He says if the miners had legal representation, it would reduce the likelihood of future appeals because the asylum claims would get a proper hearing.

HIROSHI MOTOMURA: Another way to think about it is that it's hard to call the system of justice if the results are predetermined because we'd never get to hear what the actual claim is.

GONZALES: The Justice Department has filed a motion to dismiss the ACLU's lawsuit. A hearing on that motion is scheduled in a federal court in Seattle today. Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.