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February 26, 2015

Without a Lawyer, 98.5% of Mother and Child Asylum Seekers Deported

Last year thousands of Central American asylum seekers crossed our southern border, many of them mothers travelling with young children. The Obama administration quickly locked many of them in detention centers and denied bond, arguing they constituted a “national security threat.” That’s right: toddlers and their moms, fleeing horrific violence with hardly a possession to their name, a threat to U.S. national security.

Still, many of these families passed credible fear interviews—a preliminary screening with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer to determine whether asylum seekers have a credible fear of torture or persecution if returned to their home country. By passing the credible fear screenings, USCIS is essentially saying that the person has a significant chance of qualifying for asylum.

But according to the most recent Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) data, 98.5% of these women with children are deported when they don’t have legal representation. That’s 98.5% of families who the U.S. government has determined have a credible fear of torture or persecution upon their return. And many of their fears have proven justified.

Last year, the LA Times reported that at least five children who were deported to Honduras were subsequently murdered. Women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence or death in these regions, especially those fleeing gangs or abusive partners.

Legal representation can make all the difference. With a lawyer, 26.3% of women were allowed to stay in the United States. That makes them 17 times more likely to receive relief than the 1.5% of women without a lawyer who remained. And while it can mean the difference between life and death, few asylum seekers have the resources to hire a lawyer.

That’s why Human Rights First connects refugees and children seeking protection with quality pro bono legal representation. And why we are pressing the government to reduce barriers to counsel, like blanket detention policies and detaining asylum seekers in remote facilities, far from legal hubs.

The tide is turning. Last week a federal court barred the administration from detaining asylum seekers solely as a deterrent to others in Central America. Hopefully the administration will take this opportunity to revamp their detention policies so that they align with the American ideals of liberty and due process.