Death by deportation [Editorial]

At least five undocumented immigrants U.S. officials recently deported back to their homes in Honduras turned up dead at the morgue in San Pedro Sula, the Los Angeles Times reported. According to other news accounts, the victims ranged in age from 12 to 18, and all five had died of gunshot wounds. The director of the morgue speculated the killings were the work of criminal gangs in retribution for the children's refusal to become members or pay protection money to the thugs who terrorized their neighborhood.

San Pedro Sula enjoys the dubious honor of being the most dangerous city in a country that has the highest per capita murder rate in the world. But the violence there can be found throughout Central America, a region that has endured decades of poverty, civil unrest and war. The violence is what is driving the flood of unaccompanied child migrants illegally crossing our border from Mexico, and it is the reality U.S. immigration authorities must take into account before deciding whether to send these young people home immediately or allow them to stay in this county until it is safe to return.

President Barack Obama recently issued an executive order allowing immigration authorities to fast-track deportation hearings for undocumented Central American children detained at the border. Under the president's directive, such children must be brought before an immigration court judge within 21 days of their arrival for an initial hearing. The administration says it hopes the order will help reduce the huge backlog of cases that has piled up as a result of the record numbers of Central American child migrants entering the country this year.

But advocates for the migrants say the expedited review process also means that many of the children appearing in court won't have had an opportunity to consult with an attorney or be represented by counsel during the legal proceedings that decide their fate. Some may not even be able to speak English, yet they are expected to be able to present the court with factual evidence sufficient to convince a judge that they are not economic refugees but are fleeing conditions in which their lives are in imminent danger.

That's a fine distinction to make under the best of circumstances, and it's no wonder children thrust into an unfamiliar and intimidating setting like a courtroom aren't up to the task of pressing their case on their own. Advocacy groups like Casa de Maryland say that about 50 percent of the children who appear in immigration court represented by counsel ultimately are allowed to stay in the country if they have parents or relatives already living here. But for those without their own lawyers, fewer than 5 percent manage to avoid deportation — regardless of the threat of violence that awaits them at home.

Where's the justice in a system that stacks the deck so completely against some children that it becomes little more than a fig leaf for sending them back to near certain death? We go to great lengths to ensure that everyone accused of a serious crime, including murderers, drug dealers, armed robbers and sex offenders, all have access to legal advice and representation when they appear in court. It's unconscionable to deny the same legal protections to minor children who have fled conditions in their home countries that most Americans have difficulty even imagining.

The U.S. obviously can't take in all the world's threatened children just because they show up asking for asylum. But neither can the country ignore the fact that it is faced with a humanitarian crisis on our border that won't be resolved simply by pretending it doesn't exist. Fast-tracking deportation hearings for unaccompanied minors makes a mockery of the judicial process if those children aren't provided with adequate legal representation. Gov. Martin O'Malley deserves commendation for seeking to mobilize Maryland's legal community to represent these children, but the problem is much larger than Maryland. The Obama administration must do whatever is necessary to make sure that in deporting these children to appease the anti-immigrant sentiment it isn't pronouncing the equivalent of a death sentence on those seeking our help.

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