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Attorney General Bob Ferguson supports legal representation for children in deportation hearings

Attorney General Bob Ferguson yesterday asked the U.S. District Court in Seattle for permission to file an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief in the J.E.F.M. v. Holder lawsuit. Ferguson believes that unaccompanied immigrant children — children under the age of 18 who are not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian when they are apprehended in the United States — should not be forced to represent themselves in complex deportation hearings in which the child’s future is at stake.

This class-action lawsuit was filed on July 9, 2014 on behalf of thousands of children, challenging the federal government's failure to ensure they have legal representation as it carries out deportation hearings against them. For the most part, these children are fleeing to escape violence and crime back in their home countries. A majority of the children are coming from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Washington state is not a party to the lawsuit. Ferguson seeks to file a friend of the court brief because Washington has a significant interest in assuring that the unaccompanied immigrant children residing in our state receive full and fair hearings.

“The consequences these children face are dire if they return to their countries,” said Ferguson. “I am calling on the federal government to ensure every child who faces deportation has an attorney by his or her side in order to receive a fair hearing.”

Once an unaccompanied child is apprehended by immigration authorities, the child is transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR cares for the children in shelters around the country until they can be released to a sponsor, typically a parent or relative, who can care for the child while their immigration case is processed. According to ORR, 265 unaccompanied immigrant children have settled with sponsors in Washington state as of July 31, 2014.

According to TRAC Immigration, there is a significant disparity between outcomes for represented versus unrepresented children in Washington. Since 2005, 41 percent of unaccompanied children in Washington state who were represented by counsel had their cases resolved and were granted protection from deportation. In contrast, only 4 percent of unaccompanied children not represented by counsel were allowed to remain.

This data demonstrates that many of the unaccompanied immigrant children have viable claims of asylum, but they are unable to successfully articulate those claims without legal assistance.

Washington state has a history of taking a stand on issues involving refugees fleeing violence in their home country.

In 1975, a wave of Vietnam refugees arrived in the United States. Many were being housed at Camp Pendleton in California. California’s governor wanted no Vietnamese refugees to settle in that state. In response, Washington’s then-governor, Dan Evans, invited hundreds of those refugees to settle in Washington. The state helped to pair the refugees with sponsoring Washington families to ease their transition into life in this state. Since that time, many of these Vietnam refugees and their families have become highly productive members of our Washington community.

Ferguson is currently examining options to address the legal needs of unaccompanied immigrant children in Washington with pro bono lawyers.

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