"It's hard for me to fathom that a child could articulate in court what they need — they don't know what to ask and when to ask it," said Ashley Huebner, managing attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center's Immigrant Children's Protection Project in Chicago, which defends minors detained in the area.
Since 2005, nearly 50% of the children who had lawyers when they faced an immigration judge were allowed to stay in the United States. In contrast, only 10% of children who went to court without an attorney were permitted to stay.
That comes from the nonpartisan Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. TRAC released a report in July based on information culled from open records requests made to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which runs immigration courts as part of the Justice Department.
The odds are generally stacked against migrant children, Huebner explained. If a child is detained in an area that doesn't have a sophisticated system of pro bono immigration attorneys, advocates, and charity groups experienced at working with migrants, it's likely the child will fall through the cracks and not get an attorney.
Of the approximately 28,500 juvenile cases in immigration courts nationwide as of June, only 31% of defendants had attorneys, according to TRAC data.
One Washington-based nonprofit organization that dedicates itself to providing legal representation for unaccompanied minors, Kids in Need of Defense, estimates that with this year's mass influx of Central American children, between 70% and 90% could go unrepresented.
What these numbers mean, experts say, is that immigrants who should qualify under the law for asylum or other relief — but lack an attorney — may be deported. There are cases where children are deported back to dangerous or life-threatening situations.
"We talk about access to protection, but this can be meaningless if they don't have an attorney," said Megan McKenna, communications and advocacy director at Kids in Need of Defense.