The recent surge of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has created what President Obama has called an “urgent humanitarian situation.” It has also led to an urgent legal services situation. More than 63,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended since October 2013, and authorities expect tens of thousands more by October 2014. Most of the children come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and many of them qualify for immigration relief. To find out how immigration attorneys are handling the crisis, we asked three lawyers familiar with unaccompanied minors how their organizations are responding. Their varying perspectives —one from Texas, one directing federally appointed child advocates, one in a city where unaccompanied minors come to live with relatives—show the far reach of the crisis and the great need for a legal services response.
Elizabeth Keyes directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Her teaching, scholarship, and practice focus on improving access to justice for immigrants in the immigration system and other intersecting areas of the law, from criminal to family law. Keyes was previously Practitioner-in-Residence with the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University Washington College of Law, where she supervised students in detained immigration removal cases, civil rights cases, visa applications for crime survivors, and a broad range of policy work related to immigrants’ rights. At CASA of Maryland, Keyes represented domestic workers on employment and immigration matters, particularly focusing on those trafficked by diplomats. At WEAVE, an organization providing holistic services to domestic violence survivors, Keyes worked closely with a team of social workers and focused on the intersection between immigration and domestic violence.
Jonathan Ryan has served as the Executive Director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) since 2008. RAICES offers free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families and refugees in Central and South Texas. Previously, he worked as a staff attorney at American Gateways where he helped to establish the Legal Orientation Program for adults in Department of Homeland Security detention. Ryan received his B.A. from Columbia College in New York and is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law.
Maria Woltjen is the founder and Executive Director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a national organization that provides guardians ad litem (child protection advocates) for unaccompanied immigrant children. She previously directed the Children's Advocacy Project of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, focusing on delinquency, health, and disabilities. She worked as adjunct faculty at Loyola University of Chicago School of Law. Woltjen speaks at numerous conferences on the subject of integrating child welfare principles in immigration proceedings for children and reforming the immigration system to incorporate a best interests standard.
How is your organization involved with the record number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border?
JR: RAICES has helped refugees in Central and South Texas since 1986 and has provided direct services to unaccompanied minors in U.S. Health and Human Services custody since 2008. In 2014 our agency was the first legal service provider in the nation to access unaccompanied children held at immigration detention shelters on U.S. military installations. From June 9, 2014, through July 28, 2014, our staff provided know-your-rights presentations and confidential legal screenings to more than 1,600 children at Lackland Air Force Base, finding that at least 63 percent of them have strong claims for asylum or other humanitarian protection.
EK: For two years, the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic has been representing children fleeing gang violence and other harms in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, children like “Karyn,” a teen from El Salvador, whose history of family violence and fear of gangs caused her to flee to sanctuary in the United States, where her older brother in Maryland was willing to help her. Clinic students helped her brother file for guardianship of Karyn, a step in seeking legal status for her here, and they simultaneously prepared an asylum application for her. She won asylum, and we have helped many like her with either asylum or special immigrant juvenile status, usually working on both applications at the same time. This semester we are also getting involved with helping local organizations screen children for possible relief, and the law school is supporting training of pro bono attorneys as well.
MW: The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago is based in Chicago, where there are detention facilities for more than 500 children. We have a second office in the Rio Grande Valley, where the vast majority of unaccompanied children have been apprehended in the last year. We are appointed by the federal government to serve as “child advocate”—the equivalent of a best interests guardian ad litem—for trafficking victims and the most vulnerable unaccompanied immigrant children. Our attorneys have experience in immigration and child welfare, but we do not serve as the attorney for these children. Our role is to advocate for their best interests.
Here’s an example: a 14-year-old boy is caught crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley. He’s been detained for three months. He says “three of my friends were killed. I know I’ll be killed if I go back, but I can’t take it any more in detention, and I want to go back.” The lawyer’s job is of course to counsel her client, but ultimately she has to tell the court what he wants. As child advocate, we would tell the court that this boy’s life and safety would be at risk if he is deported and that it is not in his best interests to be sent back.
How have you been able to fit that work into your program’s existing priorities or restrictions?
JR: When the Lackland facility opened in May 2014 and brought an additional 1,200 detention beds for children to San Antonio, RAICES was faced with the decision to do nothing or to take immediate action without waiting for government funding. We chose the latter, and as a consequence our work received more attention both locally and nationally than ever before. Foundations, nonprofits, and law firms from around the country stepped forward to support our emergency effort by providing pro bono attorneys, bilingual legal assistants, and translators.
MW: Our priority now is to advocate that before any child is deported, there is a determination of whether the child can be safely repatriated. In every other system in this country, if a child is going to be moved, there is an assessment of the safety of the placement. If a child is removed from a parent because of alleged child abuse, any relative offering to take care of the child is first screened—there is a background check, and a child protective services case worker visits the home to make sure it is safe. If a child is moved from one state to another, the Interstate Compact sets forth a procedure for making sure the child is being moved to a safe environment. Yet right now, there is no process for checking to make sure that there is a parent or other adult who is able and willing to take care of a child before the child is deported.
EK: Our clinic has tremendous freedom to change our priorities to meet community needs, and it has been evident from our community partners and from the immigration court locally that unrepresented immigrant children were a critical access-to-justice challenge. Because our mission is also to help law students develop sophisticated skills to prepare them for practice, it is helpful that these cases are also rich learning experiences, in addition to being deeply rewarding.
What’s the one thing lawyers working with these clients need most?
EK: Knowledge of law and procedure is not enough. Lawyers need empathy to be effective with these clients. When Karyn came to our clinic, she was soft-spoken and hesitant, and it took her student attorneys several meetings to win her trust enough to tell her traumatic story. The students’ understanding helped them to be patient and to create an atmosphere that was safe enough for her to get the help she needed.
MW: All of us—child advocates as well as attorneys representing the children in their immigration court proceedings—need to take the time to learn the children’s stories, so that we fully understand what they want, why they came to the United States, and what is needed to ensure the children’s safety and well-being. Children who’ve survived traumatic situations—persecution or abuse, a terrifying migration journey, separation from a parent—rarely open up the first time they sit down with an adult. No one wants to see a child’s case drag out indefinitely—but children need the time to feel safe and to build a relationship before telling their stories.
JR: Attorneys who represent unaccompanied children pro bono often take on the additional role of driver, guidance counselor, healthcare navigator, and even more. This stems from each client's need for guidance and orientation, the natural tendency of pro bono lawyers to lend support, and the need to complete certain tasks in order to prepare a client's legal case properly. Attorneys must have access to internal or outside pro bono support from bilingual, culturally competent, and trauma-informed social workers, licensed counselors, and other similarly skilled professionals.
How will this situation affect advocates in parts of the country far from the U.S.-Mexico border?
MW: Under existing policy, unaccompanied immigrant children may be released to family members around the country. This doesn’t mean they have permission to remain permanently in the United States, but it allows children to live with family until there’s a decision about their immigration case. Children are being released to live with sponsors in every state, in large metropolitan areas as well as suburban and rural communities. These children will need lawyers to represent them in their immigration proceedings. They may need help enrolling in school. Many will need therapy. Attorneys, social workers, and child advocates are needed in every part of the country where there is an immigration court.
JR: Although it has been described as a "border state" issue, more than 82 percent of the children arrested while crossing into Texas will reunify with family-designated sponsors in states such as Georgia, Alabama, New York, and Florida. The legal challenges faced by these children (and their potential solutions) differ from those confronted by adults or other children who are accompanied by an adult. Those attorneys seeking to represent children must study this specialty within the law to identify the issues and advise their clients appropriately.
EK: Baltimore is one of the top destinations for migrant children fleeing violence—partly because many of those children have a family member in the extensive Central American community in Maryland. Advocates locally, from legal service providers to school officials, are teaming together to provide a solid community response so these children will be supported once here.
Acknowledging the complexity of the situation, what’s the one thing you wish most Americans understood about what’s happening with unaccompanied minors at the border?
MW: Unaccompanied immigrant children are first and foremost children. In every other area of the law we recognize and treat children differently than adults, because we recognize that children are still developing and are not just adults in miniature. All of these children need attorneys and child advocates. In every case in which a judge has found that a child isn’t eligible for legal relief, there must be an assessment of to what, if anything, the child has to return. And if it’s determined that there is a risk the child won’t be safe, the child should not be deported.
EK: Our existing laws protect these children; the children are breaking no laws by seeking asylum at our borders, and our laws do provide them with ways to earn lawful status, whether through asylum or special immigrant juvenile status. Are they coming because of those laws? Absolutely not. But it gives me great pride that our law does extend special protection to some of the world’s many vulnerable children. My greatest fear is that the children being held at remote locations like Artesia, New Mexico, are not getting the same chance that Karyn had to show their eligibility to remain in the United States. The gap between what our law offers and what the children win is a crucial access-to-justice issue. There is so much more work to be done, but I am eager to share with my students how lawyers across the country are being determined, effective, and innovative to get that work done.
JR: What's happening to unaccompanied minors at our border is not a threat to our national security. Between 1983 and 2006 the U.S. Border Patrol reported 1-2 million annual arrests. In 2013 that number dipped below 400K, similar to the numbers in the early 1970s. The state of Texas alone welcomed more than 10,000 refugees in 2013 from countries like Cuba, Iraq, and Burma. Of the 64,000 Central American children who have arrived to the United States in FY 2014, over 95 percent are now living with family-designated sponsors after spending only a few weeks in government care. Yes, there is a certain cost associated with being the beacon of hope and freedom in the world—and it is well worth it.