SEATTLE - A coalition of immigrant rights advocacy groups sued the federal government Wednesday, saying the vast majority of minors in deportation proceedings lack legal representation.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on behalf of eight plaintiffs who range in age from 10 to 17.
The plaintiffs came to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. Several of them were fleeing violence in their countries -- the same reason behind a surge of tens of thousands of minors coming to the southern border recently, the lawsuit said.
That crisis prompted federal officials to say Wednesday that deportation cases involving unaccompanied child immigrants and parents traveling with children would be moved to the top of immigration court dockets.
Under federal law, the government is not required to provide attorneys for immigrants of any age facing deportation. Immigrants can hire private attorneys or seek free legal representation.
Thousands of minors undergo deportation proceedings every year, and most lack legal representation, the lawsuit says. The groups argue this practice violates the Constitution, saying the minors are entitled to due process under the Fifth Amendment.
"It is simply unacceptable that children are forced to stand alone before an immigration judge, pitted against trained attorneys from the federal government," said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, one of the groups suing.
The lawsuit names Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, among other federal officials.
A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to an email about the case.
The lawsuit is seeking to require the government to provide minors with legal representation. It's also seeking class-action certification.
The groups argue withholding attorneys from minors violates provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act that requiring a "full and fair hearing" before an immigration judge.
It wasn't immediately known how much it would cost to have government-provided attorneys represent minors in immigration court. Recently the Obama Administration began a $2 million program through AmeriCorps to have 100 attorneys and paralegals working on cases with minors.
The minors in the lawsuit are living in California and Washington but are scheduled for deportation hearings in August and September.
Attorney Kristen Jackson of Public Counsel, a legal-aid firm and one of the groups that filed suit, said children in desperate need of lawyers for deportation cases contact her office every day.
"Pro bono efforts have been valiant, but they will never fully meet the increasing and complex needs these children present," Jackson said. "The time has come for our government to recognize our Constitution's promise of fairness and its duty to give these children a real voice in court."
According to the lawsuit, five of the minors fled El Salvador and Guatemala because of gang violence. Three of them saw their father murdered because he ran a rehabilitation center for gang members.
The other groups suing the government are the American Civil Liberties Union, American Immigration Council and K&L Gates LLP. They filed the lawsuit in Seattle because the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project is based there and has worked on several cases involving minors. The legal aid group provides guidance at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.