Unaccompanied minors represent themselves in federal court as migrant cases surge

Nearly half of the unaccompanied minors making their way through immigration courts have been unable to secure legal counsel, according to a new report, a growing issue as the backlog of court cases continues to surge. One expert who spoke to Fox News Digital said those numbers may be exacerbated by young adults posing as minors and snatching up scarce legal resources.

Some federal immigration courts have seen more than half of the unaccompanied minors that appear before the court do so without legal representation, according to an ABC News report.

The report highlighted the case of 18-year-old Brian Arevalo, who arrived in the U.S. two years ago. Arevalo doesn’t speak English and told ABC News that he was forced to flee his parents and siblings in Mexico as a result of the increased violence in his area.


Young migrants wait to be tested for COVID-19 at a Homeland Security holding facility in Donna, Texas, on March 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool)

Arevalo arrived in immigration court in April and informed the judge he was not able to find legal representation despite searching for several months. He was granted a three-month extension and is due back in court in June; he told ABC News that he still has yet to find an attorney.

Similar cases have become commonplace, with experts noting that unaccompanied minors are often unable to speak English yet are forced to navigate the court system on their own.

Those who appear in immigration court unrepresented are often uneducated in our language, culture and law but are nevertheless required to present their claims unaided, while the DHS is represented by skilled government attorneys,” former immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks told ABC News.


But Alfonso Aguilar, the director of Hispanic Engagement at the American Principles Project, told Fox News Digital that many of the supposed minors arriving at the border are actually not children.

“The majority of the unaccompanied minors today are not children. They are young adults coming here to work and should be removed,” Aguilar said. “Yet, they are grabbing all the immigration lawyers, putting at risk those migrants who actually may have a legitimate asylum case and really need legal counsel.”

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Central American migrants are shown waiting for food in a pen erected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process a surge of migrant families and unaccompanied minors in El Paso, Texas, on March 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

That reality puts the actual unaccompanied minors at an obvious disadvantage, Marks added.

How are they going to know, especially with maybe only an elementary school education, how to research country conditions, political struggles in their own land, and how it puts them at risk and corroborate their testimony?” Marks said. “All of that is extremely important.”

Complicating matters is an exploding backlog of new cases, with the immigration court backlog growing from 2.8 million at the end of fiscal 2023 to nearly 3.6 million in fiscal 2024. Judges completed over a half million new cases this year, putting them on pace for an all-time record, but they still have been unable to keep pace with the surging cases.

“Our system was never created to deal with the numbers we’re seeing,” Aguilar said. “We’re never going to have enough judges to process these cases.”

Along with the shortage of judges is a shortage of attorneys, according to ABC News, despite the fact that some nonprofit law firms such as Kids in Need of Defense provide free representation to minors.

“Just like we don’t have enough immigration judges to timely process the unprecedented number of migrants arriving at the southern border, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are not enough lawyers to represent unaccompanied minors in immigration court,” Aguilar said.

Border breach El Paso

A crowd of migrants tries to enter the U.S. illegally by rushing toward a border wall in Texas on March 21, 2024. (James Breeden for New York Post/Mega)

“A lot of organizations are at capacity and can’t take cases and have to be put on a waiting list,” Jennifer Podkul, the vice president for policy and advocacy for Kids in Need of Defense, told ABC News. “We’ve put them into this complex deportation proceeding, and it doesn’t really make any sense.”


That leaves unaccompanied minors to face the reality that having legal representation may make the difference in their case, a 2021 Congressional Research Report found.

“Immigration judges are 100 times more likely to grant relief to unaccompanied children with legal representation than to those without it,” the report said.

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