Children are not little adults in immigration court

November 7, 2023

I was eight years old when I came to the United States from Cuba with my family after the Cuban Revolution. Though I understood why we had to leave Cuba, I was much too young at the time to understand the weight of the decision my parents made and the process they had to navigate to seek safety in the United States.

Now, as an adult, and as a former member of Congress who has written and passed immigration laws, I understand our complicated immigration system all too well.

The complexity of the system is difficult for adults to navigate, but for children, particularly unaccompanied children, it is nearly impossible. These children face enormous and unfair challenges as they seek U.S. protection from the dangers they fled in their home countries, which include brutal gang violence, conflict, exploitation and trafficking.

The deck is stacked against them from the start. Unaccompanied children are placed into removal proceedings in an adversarial immigration court system that was designed for adults and mostly does not recognize their age, developmental level or vulnerability. While the U.S. judicial system acknowledges that children’s circumstances should be considered differently in other legal settings, such as in juvenile justice and family courts, children are treated virtually the same as adults in immigration court and must also find and pay for their own attorney.

This is not only unjust, but it’s inefficient at a time when immigration courts are overwhelmed with a backlog of more than 2 million unresolved cases — and counting. Families, children and others are forced to wait indefinitely for a potentially life-changing decision in a distressing limbo, not knowing what the future holds. Children are most impacted by this uncertainty as they need security and stability to thrive, particularly those who traveled hundreds or thousands of miles without a caretaker to find safety.

I can’t imagine how such insecurity would have impacted 8-year-old me, but I do know that change is possible. During my 30 years serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, I worked with colleagues from both sides of the aisle to pursue common-sense legislation to improve our immigration system — changes that would create secure and orderly processes and would protect the most vulnerable, including children.

This is why I support pragmatic solutions like the bipartisan Immigration Court Efficiency and Children’s Court Act, which would create more appropriate trial settings for unaccompanied children to ensure they receive a fair day in court and alleviate the strain on immigration courts by creating more efficient proceedings.

Under the act, judges and attorneys handling children’s cases would be specially trained, and procedures that align with the developmental levels of children would be implemented to help them understand and participate in the proceedings. The court would be required to coordinate with legal services providers and pro bono attorneys to facilitate legal screening and expand children’s access to representation.

The result would be a more streamlined, orderly and fair system that mirrors best practices in the adjudication of children’s cases in all other legal contexts. Judicial resources would be better used and unnecessary time in court would likely be reduced.

Children in the immigration system deserve the same protection and compassion that all children deserve. They are children first and foremost. They hope for what I ultimately achieved: the chance to live in safety, develop their abilities so they can contribute to the communities they now call home and fulfill their grandest dreams.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was formerly a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1989-2019, from Miami, Florida. She now serves as a senior advisor at Akin Gump LLP and is a member of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)’s Leadership Council advocating for the protection of unaccompanied children.