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Appellate court hands immigrant children major legal defeat

Several years ago, immigration officials began seeing a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied minors making the harrowing journey to the U.S. from such faraway nations as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in a bid to escape escalating violence and staggering poverty. Indeed, this number topped 60,000 in fiscal year 2014.

A problem soon emerged, however, when these unaccompanied minors were brought to deportation hearings: immigration judges, who are executive branch officials, did not have the authority to appoint attorneys to represent them. Consequently, many of these unaccompanied minors found themselves at the mercy of government attorneys. 

The issue soon caught the attention of both immigrant advocacy and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a federal class action lawsuit back in 2014 on behalf of unaccompanied minors ranging in age from three to 17.

Here, they argued that this denial of adequate legal representation in deportation hearings was a violation of the children's due process rights and that the federal government must provide them with adequate legal counsel.

A federal judge in Seattle ruled earlier this year that the class action could proceed. However, in a shocking turn of events, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed this decision earlier this week.

Here, the judges ruled that federal immigration law dictates that these types of claims cannot be filed as class actions and cannot be filed in district court. Instead, they must be filed on an individual basis directly to the federal appellate court, and only after the conclusion of deportation proceedings.

The court did go on to clarify, however, that it's decision was purely jurisdictional and that it did not address the merits of the claims. It also acknowledged that while these unaccompanied minors undoubtedly find themselves in "an extremely difficult situation," that the solution to this problem could come from different branches of the government.

"I write to underscore that the Executive and Congress have the power to address this crisis without judicial intervention. What is missing here? Money and resolve - political solutions that fall outside the purview of the courts," reads the opinion.      

Attorneys representing the unaccompanied minors have already indicated that they will be appealing the decision, requesting a rehearing en banc, meaning before the entire 9th circuit.

Stay tuned for updates …

If you have questions or concerns regarding an immigration matter -- from securing a green card to fighting deportation -- consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.

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