Press Release

Gillibrand Leads Colleagues In Push To Strengthen Access To Counsel For Unaccompanied Minors, Vulnerable Populations During Immigration Removal Proceedings

May 6, 2021

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand led 20 colleagues in two separate funding requests to appropriators to deliver necessary resources to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to ensure efficient and fair due process for unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable populations during immigration removal proceedings. 

“Fairness and due process shouldn’t be available just to those who can afford the resources needed to navigate a vast and complex immigration system,” said Senator Gillibrand. “I am proud to lead these important appropriation funding requests because guaranteed access to counsel will get us closer to reimagining and rebuilding an immigration court system that recognizes the dignity of children and vulnerable individuals who deserve a fair shot at defending their cases. I’m calling on both the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services to consider these necessary updates to the immigration courts system because fixing the crisis at the border requires measured, thoughtful, and long-term vision.”

“AILA applauds these senators, led by Senator Gillibrand, who are addressing one of the great travesties of the American justice system which still does not guarantee legal representation to asylum seekers, families, and other vulnerable people who cannot afford an attorney in immigration court proceedings,” said Greg Chen, Senior Director of Government Relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association“Without an attorney, it is nearly impossible for someone who does not speak English and is not legally trained to apply for complex forms of legal protection like asylum, but that is what the U.S. immigration courts force thousands of people to do every year. Legal counsel not only ensures fairer court proceedings but also reduces delays in court and increases the likelihood that people come to court – at a rate of 96 percent.”

“Providing legal services for vulnerable children in immigration proceedings not only ensures that those children have a fair chance to seek humanitarian protection; it also creates vital efficiencies in the U.S. immigration court system which has a backlog of more than 1.3 million cases,” said KIND President Wendy Young. “By explaining court procedures to children, preventing costly postponements of hearings, and advising children who are not eligible for U.S. protection on options that would move them through the system more quickly, attorneys preserve judicial resources and save taxpayer dollars. Congress should appropriate robust funding for unaccompanied children’s legal services because it’s the right and smart thing to do for these children and the nation.” 

Gillibrand previously introduced the Funding Attorneys for Indigent Removal (FAIR) Proceedings Act, a bill that guarantees access to government-funded legal counsel during removal proceedings for children, individuals with disabilities, victims of abuse, torture, and violence, and those living at or below 200% of the federal poverty line. 

Unlike American constitutional guarantees in criminal cases, those subjected to immigration removal proceedings do not have a guaranteed right to counsel. According to an American Immigration Council study, “only 37 percent of all immigrants and 14 percent of detained immigrants go to court with lawyers on their side.” Noncitizens, including children, must often argue their case without legal representation.  

As the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)’s backlog eclipses 1.3 million cases, measures that improve immigration court efficiency and conserve resources while also protecting due process are needed more than ever.  Counsel for unaccompanied children and other vulnerable groups  serves all these ends. And because attorneys play a critical role in explaining immigration court procedures, they make hearings more efficient and preserve judicial resources.  

Children who are represented by counsel have an extraordinarily high appearance rate in immigration court. From FY 2005 through FY 2019, 98 percent of children with attorneys appeared for court. The provision of counsel to children therefore helps promote orderly, efficient court operations. 

Read the texts of the letters here and here.