OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- A coalition of immigrant-rights advocacy groups has asked a federal court to block upcoming deportation proceedings against several minors unless they are provided legal representation.
The motion for a preliminary injunction was filed Thursday night by several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Council and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. The groups, which filed a lawsuit on the issue of legal representation last month, say that expedited deportation proceedings sparked the need for immediate action.
"Each of these children desperately fears deportation, and each of them has a colorable defense. But they do not know how to defend themselves under the immigration laws," the motion reads.
The groups, which include Public Counsel and K&L Gates LLP, also asked the U.S. District Court in Seattle to hear a motion seeking class-action certification of the lawsuit as soon as possible.
Under federal law, the government is not required to provide attorneys for immigrants of any age facing deportation. Immigrants can hire private attorneys or seek free legal representation.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of eight minors ranging in age from 10 to 17, is seeking to require the government to provide minors with legal representation. Six plaintiffs who have hearings upcoming in September and January are cited in Thursday's motion, which says they came to the U.S. from El Salvador and Guatemala and either saw family members killed, were threated and attacked by gang members, or were abandoned and abused. The minors in the lawsuit are currently living in California and Washington.
"The public interest overwhelmingly favors ensuring that the immigration system guarantees fair treatment for children, a group that both society and the law recognize deserve our solicitude and protection," the motion says.
Beth Werlin, deputy director of the Legal Action Center at the American Immigration Council, said that minors can't be expected to properly advocate for themselves at such hearings given the complex nature of immigration law.
"That's extremely difficult for an adult to do, but really beyond anyone's reasonable expectation of what a child can do," she said.
A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment Friday. A message left with the Office of Immigration Litigation at the U.S. Justice Department was not immediately returned.
A hearing has not yet been set for the motion, Werlin said.
It's not yet known how much it would cost to have government-provided attorneys represent minors in immigration court. Recently, the Obama administration began a $2 million program through AmeriCorps to have 100 attorneys and paralegals working on cases with minors.
Werlin said that whatever the cost is, the alternative is unprepared minors representing themselves in court "and potentially returning to countries where they're facing violence."
"That's not a viable option," she said. "We need to make sure it's a level playing field."
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