barack obama
U.S. President Barack Obama presents Loretta Lynch Attorney General Eric Holder at the White House in Washington November 8, 2014. Obama and Lynch have faced criticism over immigration courts, where children often lack legal representation in deportation proceedings. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Thousands of immigrant children have been ordered deported since an increase in border crossings by Central American minors began in 2013. The Obama administration has defended deportations of child migrants against increasing public criticism and lawsuits over immigrants’ access to legal representation. Over 7,706 failed to appear in court and were subsequently slated for deportation, according to federal data cited by the Los Angeles Times. It’s unclear exactly why immigrant children don’t show up to court or how many are actually deported.

Immigration courts are often compared to traffic courts. Like a parking ticket, an immigration violation isn’t a crime but a civil violation. That means that defendants are not guaranteed access to a lawyer. Children who do show up for a court date often have manage their own cases, or rely on the kindness of a judge.

“Thousands of children in deportation hearings in the US must stand alone before government lawyers and judges, and try to make their case without a lawyer,” says Clara Long, an immigration researcher at Human Rights Watch, quoted in the Eurasia Review. “These hearings are incredibly complex and the consequence of losing is the potentially deadly threat of deportation.”

Child access to legal representation came under scrutiny by the media and congress in March, when the Washington Post reported comments by an immigration judge that implied he could guide toddlers through the immigration process. The Justice Department distanced themselves from the statement. In a subsequent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) grilled Attorney General Loretta Lynch her subordinate’s outlandish statement calling it “stupid, stupid, stupid.”

"I think you raise an excellent point and we may find ourselves there," Lynch said. "I think we're looking to find any various ways to support that and we're looking at various ways to get legal counsel appointed in every situation."

The Obama administration has taken modest steps to get immigrants, especially mothers with children, to make their court dates, including material assistance such as transportation. It’s unclear if those efforts, announced in January, have made a difference.

Past efforts at reforming the immigration system have backfired. In an attempt to clear the growing backlog of around 375,000 immigration cases pending nationwide in 2014, the Obama administration issued an executive order to expedite child asylum-seeker cases damaged due process.

“We believe it doesn't make sense to disrupt the rest of the docket to hear these cases quickly because overall these cases will end up needing extra time, rather than less time," Judge Dana Leigh Marks told the Houston Chronicle in the summer of 2014. "If you ask any judge which cases should go fastest, juvenile cases would be last on the list."

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