By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Lawyers for nine children suspected of being illegal immigrants argued on Thursday that they have the right to a court-appointed attorney, in a lawsuit that challenges the notion that minors can competently represent themselves.
The lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups in federal court in Seattle seeks to force the federal government to provide attorneys for undocumented children facing deportation in immigration hearings.
If successful, the move would change longstanding policy on the treatment of children in immigration courts.
"Their only hope of having a fair proceeding is if they have a legal representative," Matt Adams, an attorney for the children, said at hearing before Judge Thomas S. Zilly. "There is no justification for making immigration law the exception to the norm."
The case made headlines after a federal immigration judge said in a deposition that he has been able to explain the nuances of U.S. immigration law to children as young as three- and four-years-old, provoking outrage from activists.
Immigration policy became a hotly debated issue in the U.S. presidential campaign after Republican frontrunner Donald Trump accused Mexico of sending criminals to the U.S. and vowed to build a wall to keep people from crossing the border illegally.
A surge of unaccompanied children crossed the U.S. border in the latter half of 2014, mostly fleeing gang violence and economic hardships in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
That wave subsided, but the flow of immigrant children increased again toward the end of last year, with 12,505 taken into custody between Oct. 1 and Nov. 20 of 2015.
On Thursday, Zilly heard arguments on several motions in the case, including whether to dismiss several of the plaintiffs and whether to allow it to proceed as a class action suit.
Among the children seeking legal representation via the case are an 11-year-old in Washington state whose mother abandoned him, a 4-year-old from El Salvador who lives in Los Angeles, and others in Texas and Florida, said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Ahilan Arulanantham, who is representing the children.
The complaint, filed in 2014, says that sending indigent children into a civil immigration hearing against an adversarial prosecutor violates constitutional guarantees of due process as well as federal laws requiring a "full and fair hearing" before a immigration judge.
Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General Leon Fresco, who is representing the federal government, argued Thursday that the children are protected by existing policies and pro-bono legal services, and that offering foreigners the automatic right to an attorney would wreck the immigration system.
"Once you recognize that people who have not had any ties or interest in the U.S. can come in and sue, you will have an unadminsterable immigration system," he said.
Fresco said class-action status would betray the varying "individual interests" at stake for each child, and that 72 percent of cases in which children do not have attorneys end without removal from the U.S.
Zilly did not indicate when he would rule on the motions, which both sides say could affect thousands of children.
(Story correctes to remove reference to U.S. citizens in paragraph 3).
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Simon Cameron-Moore)