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Alone in Court

Beginning this week, children who have entered the United States alone will be sent to 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan to face deportation hearings as part of the U.S. government’s accelerated efforts to stem the flood of illegal immigrants crossing the border.

Some children as young as 5 who have made the perilous journey to this country unaccompanied could be returned to Honduras or El Salvador, which they fled to dodge death at the hands of ruthless gangs roving their homelands.

Nearly 3,500 unaccompanied juveniles have arrived in New York — many in Queens, the rest of the city and the metropolitan area — to navigate the complex legal system despite not speaking English or understanding the deportation proceedings.

Even in Queens, the country’s most diverse county, there have been rumblings from some naysayers who contend these young visitors should be sent home as soon as possible regardless of the consequences.

But many residents seem sympathetic to the plight of these children, perhaps because they are immigrants themselves or only a generation or two removed from the first family member who dared to dream of a life in America.

In this city, with its rich history of immigration, the response to the sudden acceleration in the child deportation hearings has been swift. The mayor’s office of Immigrant Affairs has formed a task force to provide protection and legal help to the children, which is tapping the resources of the New York Immigration Coalition, the Legal Aid Society, New York Law School, Catholic Charities and private organizations.

Public Advocate Letitia James, an attorney who has worked with Legal Aid, wants a help desk created in Immigration Court to provide lawyers for the undocumented youth and their families. James also plans to hold monthly clinics to train attorneys who volunteer to serve as a friend of the court during the initial hearings.

Betsy Plum, an outreach coordinator for the coalition, estimated about 60 percent of the children should be eligible to stay here if they have a lawyer at their side.

This is not an abstract debate over the pros and cons of U.S. immigration policy. When vulnerable children land on our doorstep in New York after fleeing unimaginable violence back home, we have a moral obligation to give them the tools to defend themselves in court.

A judge will decide each case, but the children deserve fair representation. As a nation of immigrants, we owe that to them.

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