Immigration Law

Short film dramatizes difficulties of children representing themselves in immigration court

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The Department of Justice does not permit cameras or other recording devices inside immigration courtrooms.

So when filmmaker Linda Freedman teamed up with the Portland, Oregon, public interest firm Immigration Counseling Service to illustrate the difficulties immigrant children face representing themselves, they had to use transcripts.

“It felt impossible to convey the story that needed to be told,” Freedman wrote on a website for her film. “Finally, a new approach took shape: film a re-enactment of the children’s circumstances in the most realistic way possible.”

The resulting short film is Unaccompanied: Alone in America, which relies on actors to perform transcripts of real immigration law cases. In different scenes, a teenager and two young children face an immigration judge (played by a retired Oregon judge) and answer simple questions on their own. Titles occasionally appear to remind the viewer that while the U.S. government always has a lawyer, the children are not entitled to one.

In fact, no immigrant is entitled to a public defender, because being removable from the United States is not a crime. After the 2014 “surge” of unaccompanied minors, immigrant advocates sued, arguing that minors have a right to lawyers under the Immigration and Nationality Act’s guarantee of a fair trial as well as the minors’ own due process rights. A deposition in that case attracted attention after a judge claimed he could teach immigration law to young children.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually rejected the case for lack of jurisdiction, but Judge Margaret McKeown called on Congress and the president to create a solution.

As Bustle magazine notes, statistics from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse—published by the ABA Commission on Immigration in 2016—show that whether a minor has a lawyer makes an enormous difference in his or her case. TRAC found that unrepresented kids had a 15 percent success rate; represented ones had a 73 percent success rate.

The ABA House of Delegates has called for attorneys for minors in immigration court in 2001 and 2015, and for all immigrants in 2017.

UNACCOMPANIED: Alone in America from Linda Freedman on Vimeo.

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