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An American Humanitarian Crisis?

PUBLISHED: June 23, 2014

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article for VQR about an unaccompanied minor—one who crossed the border without papers or parents—named Jordi, who fled his village in Guatemala because of domestic violence. Like thousands of other unaccompanied minors, Jordi was apprehended in Texas and subsequently had to navigate the immigration-detention and court systems all on his own. Since the writing of that article, the flood of teens and children—some as young as six or seven—moving across the border has shown no sign of slowing. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended since October 1, 2013, nearly three times the number in 2010, the year Jordi crossed the Rio Grande.

It’s primarily children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who account for this dramatic increase in numbers. Jordi was one of 3,304 Central American unaccompanied minors in 2010, but so far this year, 42,437 Central American children have crossed the border into the United States. This surge in the number of UACs, as they’re known among immigration officials, is so alarming that President Barack Obama described it as “an urgent humanitarian situation” and requested $1.4 billion in additional funding from Congress—mostly for housing for these kids, thousands of whom are currently being kept in makeshift shelters at former military bases in California, Texas, and Arizona. Following the president’s comments, the Executive Office of Immigration Review announced a $2 million legal-aid program for UACs.

When unaccompanied minors like Jordi are apprehended by immigration officials, they are immediately put into deportation proceedings. They are required to appear in court, but are not entitled to free legal representation. This systemic dysfunction plays out in towns like Harlingen, Texas, where on weekdays an otherwise sleepy courthouse is full of  kids brought over from the area’s youth shelters, nervously fidgeting in the lobby before they are called in to see the judge. When I visited Harlingen last spring, a daily attorney and a paralegal assigned by the nonprofit agency ProBAR ran around frantically trying to prep the forty or so kids on the day’s docket on what to say when it was their turn to stand in front of the judge. But these days, due to the astronomical numbers, the youth are being transferred from shelter care so fast that many of them don’t even make it to court in Texas or get tips from ProBAR.  Within a few weeks or months, most of them are transferred to the care of sponsors—trusted adults like a sibling, aunt, family friend, or even a parent already living in the US. Their cases are also transferred to the nearest court—in cities like Houston and San Francisco and New York—at which point they must try to find an attorney in their new home. Because many of the children are fleeing growing community violence, they might qualify for a status like asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. But first they need to apply. And to have a real shot at their petition being granted, they need a lawyer.

Pro bono counsel for unaccompanied minors was a lesser-known facet of the now-stalled comprehensive immigration reform bill. But the new announcement of $2 million for pro bono attorneys marks a big step, if still smaller in scope, toward legal access for unaccompanied minors.

“It is so important that these children have representation,” says Elizabeth Frankel of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago. “They need an adult, a lawyer, to help them navigate this system. Without someone to argue on the child’s behalf, there is a risk that the child could be returned to a dangerous situation. The risks are too high for us to have a system where children are not provided lawyers.”

In addition to my work as a journalist, I work at a high school for immigrant youth in Oakland, California, where I manage student and family support services—connecting families with health insurance, clinics, mental-health providers, homeless shelters, after-school programs, and the like. Though we’ve had a few unaccompanied minors at our school over the years, there were never all that many—that is, until last year, when kids from ages fourteen to barely eighteen, hailing from Central America via shelters in Harlingen and Phoenix and San Antonio, began enrolling by the dozens. With the unaccompanied-minor population nearly doubling each year since 2011, these kids were bound to show up at our door. What was once a couple of kids here and there at our school has turned into a population of more than fifty unaccompanied minors out of 380 students. All of these kids have experienced trauma, all have been detained for several weeks or months, all are in deportation proceedings. Most importantly, all of them need lawyers.

The problem is that there simply aren’t enough affordable lawyers to go around. This is true even in the Bay Area, home to many mission-driven legal-service agencies. Since the influx over the past year at my school, I’ve spent many an afternoon escorting kids around on BART to attend drop-in days at pro bono agencies where staff members screen potential clients to see if the agency can take on a case—which it often can’t because it is already overloaded. So kids are turned away. For young newcomers who don’t speak English, navigating these systems alone is incredibly challenging; many of our students who are unaccompanied minors arrive having attended only a handful of years of school, having never visited a city. A teacher recently brought two brothers from El Salvador to see me after they missed their court date—not because they mixed up the date or blew it off, but because they couldn’t find the courthouse; they’d spent hours circling downtown San Francisco in a panic, too scared to ask anyone for help.

So for the past six months or so, I’ve accompanied students to their court dates, helped them fax documents to Guatemala and El Salvador for their parents’ signatures, showed them how to take the bus to attorneys’ offices, set up intake appointments and legal trainings at the school, introduced them to low-cost attorneys whose incredibly cheap rates nonetheless threaten to break the bank for kids who don’t have jobs and are often in debt to coyote rings that brought them here in the first place. The need has been so great that at times I have sent desperate e-mails to attorney friends and friends of friends and former coworkers and even ex-boyfriends, all but begging them to take one of my students on as a client.

And all this for only a few dozen students, never mind the more than 52,000 who’ve arrived since October.

The newly announced pro bono legal-counsel program will allow agencies in twenty-nine high-concentration cities with limited legal services (such as San Francisco, Phoenix, San Antonio, New York, Denver, Seattle, and Hartford, Connecticut) to hire AmeriCorps attorneys and paralegals, paid for by the Department of Justice, to provide direct representation to unaccompanied minors under sixteen. (Agencies have to apply through a competitive grant cycle to be awarded AmeriCorps staff positions.) The $2 million of funding provides for 100 legal staff, most of whom will be attorneys right out of law school. In these twenty cities, theoretically, children will no longer have to plead their cases alone. Children in other cities will be left searching for attorneys or giving up altogether (which can result in “removal in absentia,” a deportation order). And there remains an even greater gap: The vast majority of unaccompanied minors are over the age of sixteen (in 2011, 57 percent of unaccompanied minors were sixteen or seventeen upon arrival in the US). What happens to these young people?

Advocates remain concerned about the continued lack of representation for unaccompanied minors sixteen and over. “The new program takes a critical step in recognizing that children need lawyers in immigration proceedings just like they need lawyers in any other court proceedings—and just as they are provided lawyers in other proceedings,” says Lisa Frydman of San Francisco’s Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “We congratulate EOIR on this important step but we need to do better. We need to ensure a lawyer for every child in removal proceedings who is not a derivative on a parent’s application.”

And what about the notion that, by providing shelter and free legal counsel for young migrants, the US government might encourage more migration north? Frankel, of the Young Center, points out that an estimated 90,000 children are projected to arrive before the end of September. They are clearly not coming for the lawyers.

As the New York Times recently reported, some may be coming due to widespread rumors that the US is offering visas to women and children who make it across the border. To combat these rumors and dissuade Central American parents from sending their kids north, the Department of Homeland Security issued an open letter in Spanish that ran in media outlets throughout Central America. “The long journey is not only dangerous,” it reads, “there are no ‘permisos,’ ‘permits,’ or free passes at the end.” Vice President Joe Biden met last week with Central American leaders to discuss the crisis and the root causes of the flight—largely, community violence and economic stability—and announced tens of millions of dollars in US aid for gang prevention and citizen security programs, as well as for repatriation programs for the people that the US deports back home.

In 2012, Jordi contacted Kids in Need of Defense, which connected him with a committed pro bono attorney at an elite Houston law firm. As a result, he was granted both asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. In the past year, Jordi has graduated high school and is awaiting his green card, after which he plans to join the Marines. “I want to help my country,” he says, referring to his adopted home of the United States. The day he graduated high school, he posted a thank-you note on Facebook to his attorney: “I couldn’t have done it without your help.”


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