Migrant Children’s Access to Justice: Bipartisan Bill Pushes for Specialized Courts

A rare bipartisan bill addressing immigration seeks to make the immigration court system more accessible and child-friendly for unaccompanied migrant children. 

Currently, there are approximately 62,000 pending cases in US immigration courts involving children who crossed the border without a parent. 

Many of these children must defend their right to stay in the US without legal representation in courts designed for adults and presided over by judges who may not fully understand their unique circumstances.

Data from the Justice Department indicates that nearly half of these children defend themselves against deportation without any legal representation. In some cases, even very young children who cannot communicate verbally face judges who lack the training to handle such sensitive issues.

The Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act of 2023 was introduced in the Senate by Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and in the House by a group of Republicans and Democrats.

The bill aims to provide specialized training for immigration judges, allowing them to manage a dedicated children’s docket. It also seeks to ensure that children are “treated appropriately for their developmental age” and are connected to legal service organizations.

Michael Bennet, a senator from the bipartisan “gang of eight” that drafted an immigration reform bill in 2013, expressed the bill’s goal to make the process more humane and efficient for vulnerable individuals, especially children.

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Inspired Model Courtroom for Migrant Children Sparks Legislation

In June, NBC News observed a courtroom where Judge Kathleen Reilly presided over cases of migrants who had entered the country as unaccompanied children. 

The court had lawyers representing most of the individuals. The bill aims to replicate such settings across immigration courtrooms nationwide.

The legislation has received support from organizations like Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which advocates for the rights of unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings. KIND’s President, Wendy Young, emphasized the importance of creating child-friendly environments in immigration courts to improve access to due process.

The bill also strives to enhance efficiency. By connecting children with lawyers early in the process and focusing on children-only dockets, it aims to combat the immigration court backlog, which currently consists of over 2.7 million cases.

While the bill does not guarantee legal representation for children (as the right to legal counsel is afforded only to US citizens), its proponents believe that more children will have access to lawyers due to the legislation. 

The bill’s approach is to create an environment where judges experienced in dealing with children have greater access to organizations with lawyers and advocates who can work with them.

Michael Bennet expressed hope that the bipartisan and bicameral nature of the bill will lead to its passage. 

Regardless of the bill’s fate, the US faces a pressing need for additional immigration judges to address the growing backlog of pending cases.

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Source: NBC News

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