On March 15, lawyers with the firm of Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on behalf of 11 former immigration judges and BIA Board members in the case of C.J.L.G. v. Sessions. The case involves a child from Honduras who appeared in immigration court accompanied only by his mother. As the respondent could not obtain a lawyer in the time afforded, the immigration judge went forward with the hearing, informing the mother that she would “represent” her son.
The respondent is an asylum applicant whose gang-related claim rested on his ability to precisely delineate a particular social group pursuant to requirements complex enough to stump most attorneys. As his mother lacked any legal training, his hearing did not go well. On appeal, the BIA affirmed the IJ’s denial of the claim. In its decision, the BIA determined that the respondent did not suffer past persecution when at the age of 13, members of MS-13, a brutal, multinational gang, threatened to kill him, his mother, and his aunt if he refused to join their ranks, put a gun to his head to emphasize their point, and told him that he had one day to decide. The BIA also found the hearing before the IJ to have been fair, and that the respondent was not denied due process because the immigration laws do not require the appointment of counsel in removal proceedings.
Hon. Dana Marks, an outstanding jurist and president emeritus of the National Association of Immigration Judges, often states that immigration judges hear “death penalty cases under traffic court conditions.” What she means by this is that a genuine asylum seeker who is denied relief and deported faces the risk of death in the country from which he or she fled. Yet the conditions under which such life-or-death claims are heard are inadequate; the limited time and resources afforded to the judges hearing such claims are better suited for a court hearing much lower stakes matters such as traffic tickets. Courts hearing cases involving matters of life and liberty have a higher obligation to afford due process. First and foremost, a defendant facing criminal charges in a state or federal court is entitled to assigned counsel. However, although the stakes may be higher in an asylum case, respondents in immigration court have no such entitlement. Although the respondent in C.J.L.G. may face death if deported, having a judge determine it was fine to proceed, and telling his mother that she would represent him sounds like something that might be appropriate in traffic court.
A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit denied the respondent’s petition for review. Interestingly, the respondent was found credible in his recounting of the death threats he suffered and as to his fear of return; the court accepted the statistics provided by respondent’s counsel that unrepresented respondents succeed on their claims only 10 percent of the time, whereas as represented minors enjoy a 47 percent success rate. The court also assumed that the respondent qualifies as an indigent (due to his mother’s inability to afford private counsel), and that ordering him removed would send him “back to a hostile environment where he has faced death threats in the past implicates his freedom.” The court further acknowledged that the immigration laws and regulations include assuring minors “the right to a ‘full and fair hearing,’ which includes the ‘opportunity to present evidence and testimony on one’s behalf,’ cross-examine witnesses, and examine and object to adverse evidence.” It would be difficult to argue that an unrepresented minor is capable of exercising such rights.
In spite of this, the court denied the petition, determining that there was no Constitutional right to assigned counsel at government expense to minors in removal proceedings. The court further found that the respondent had not demonstrated prejudice, as he had not established a nexus to a protected ground as required to establish eligibility.
The ACLU has filed a petition for the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case en banc. It is in support of this latest petition that the latest amicus brief was filed. I am one of the former IJs included in the brief; I join my colleagues in being proud to assist in such a noble effort as securing assigned counsel for immigrant children facing the legal complexities and dire consequences of immigration proceedings. In a nutshell, the brief argues that the efforts of an immigration judge to provide a fair hearing is no substitute for counsel. Immigration judges can only do so much faced with “overburdened and growing dockets, the complexity of immigration law, and, as Department of Justice (DOJ) employees, the constraints of administrative policy.”
The problem is compounded in cases in which the asylum claim is based on membership in a particular social group. The BIA has recently held that an asylum applicant must specifically delineate such group, a requirement that is clearly beyond the ability of a child (or his or her mother) to do. As the brief points out, in this case, the respondent “ and his mother showed no understanding of why a gang-related threat alone would not warrant asylum, but the IJ’s cursory inquiry ended without seeking the motivation for the threat.”
Of course, the entire issue could be resolved by the Department of Justice choosing to do what is right by agreeing to provide assigned counsel at government expense to this most vulnerable group.
Heartfelt thanks to partner Harrison J. “Buzz” Frahn and associate Lee Brand of the law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett for their dedication and effort in drafting the excellent brief.
Copyright 2018 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.