America is a special place where we make 6-year-olds who can’t speak English and don’t understand the concept of international borders represent themselves in court because the right to a court-appointed attorney does not include immigration court and they were abandoned by smugglers without adult accompaniment in the country.
Juan David Gonzalez was 6 years old. He was in the court, which would decide whether to expel him from the country, without a parent — and also without a lawyer.
The young people, mostly from Mexico and Central America, ride to the border on the roofs of freight trains or the backs of buses. They cross the Rio Grande on inner tubes, or hike for days through extremes of heat and chill in Arizona deserts. The smallest children, like Juan, are most often brought by smugglers.
The youths pose troubling difficulties for American immigration courts. Unlike in criminal or family courts, in immigration court there is no right to a lawyer paid by the government for people who cannot afford one. And immigration law contains few protections specifically for minors. So even a child as young as Juan has to go before an immigration judge — confronting a prosecutor and trying to fight deportation — without the help of a lawyer, if one is not privately provided.
So far this year, more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors have been placed in deportation proceedings, nearly double last year’s numbers.
Judge Achtsam postponed Juan’s proceedings, but he warned the boy and other minors in the courtroom.
“If you do not have a lawyer,” the judge said, “you need to be ready to speak for yourselves at your next hearing.”
Juan left holding the social worker’s hand, grinning proudly when she told him he had done well. But his case was just beginning. Most likely it would end with a final order for his deportation.