Legal Aid for Border Children: Groups focus on legal needs of unaccompanied minor migrants

On both coasts of the United States and in between, efforts are being ramped up to try to provide legal assistance for the flood of minor immigrants who have arrived in the country without a parent.

Because immigration violations are not considered crimes, people charged with being in the country without permission are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney if they cannot afford a lawyer on their own. Nor are government-funded attorneys provided for people seeking asylum.

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In Olympia, Washington, July 31, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Immigration Council filed a request for preliminary injunction blocking upcoming deportation proceedings against several children ages 10-17, and asked the U.S. District Court in Seattle to hear a motion to certify a class action that would expand the effort to minors around the country who are imminently facing deportation. The filing follows the organizations' suit filed a few weeks earlier asking the court to require the government to provide legal representation to minors facing deportation.

A spokesman for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project told Catholic News Service Aug. 5 that there's a preliminary court date of Aug. 22 on its motions, but that a status conference scheduled for the first week of August might result in an extension of that date at the government's request.

Federal data in more than 100,000 cases of unaccompanied child immigrants, compiled by Syracuse University and current as of June 30, found that when an unaccompanied minor immigrant had an attorney, 47 percent were ultimately allowed to stay in the United States. Of minors who had no attorney, 90 percent were deported.

The Syracuse University analysis found that in the closed cases it studied, just over half the children had attorneys. But of the 41,000 unaccompanied minor cases still pending, only 31 percent are represented by lawyers.

Among the reasons immigration judges allow unaccompanied juveniles to remain in the U.S. are that they are found to qualify for:

-- Asylum, granted to people fleeing persecution;

-- Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, granted to minors who have been abused, abandoned or neglected;

-- T visas, for victims of human trafficking;

-- U visas, for victims of certain other crimes.

According to the Syracuse analysis, the average time cases have been pending in immigration courts is currently just under 600 days. The Justice Department in early July announced it would prioritize the cases of unaccompanied minors and newly arrived families with children, putting them of ahead older cases involving adults on their own.

Meanwhile, in Miami, Catholic Legal Services director Randy McGrorty at an Aug. 1 press conference, said the decision to fast-track deportation proceedings for unaccompanied minors is an "artificial crisis" that was created for "political show."

Joined by Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski and other immigration attorneys, McGrorty said he's seen a 2-year-old without an attorney put up to face a judge in deportation proceedings.

Archbishop Wenski questioned why the Obama administration would bow to political pressure to speed up the process of deportation. He said there is no need to rush to judgment, since the children "are not really costing the government any money." Nearly all of them have been turned over to the care of relatives.

Just as "justice delayed is justice denied," the archbishop said, in this case "justice expedited is also justice denied."

"We're not saying that every child will have to stay in the U.S. What we're saying is that what we do should be about the best interest of the child," Archbishop Wenski said. "What we should not do is short-circuit this by making a travesty of the immigration system."

Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, pointed out at the Miami press conference that the majority of the current surge of unaccompanied minors are fleeing violence in their home countries, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which have some of the world's highest murder rates. She noted that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that 60 percent of the minors in the current surge can make a case for some form of protection from deportation.

Deporting the minors in such cases "is tantamount to a virtual death sentence," Little said.

Among organizations that have decried the fast-track approach to the juvenile cases is the National Association of Immigration Judges, who work for the Justice Department, which said in a July 22 letter to members of Congress that "a seven-day adjudication time frame for these cases" will lead to "an unacceptably high risk of legal errors" -- errors which in turn will cause a backlog of appeals and cost the government more in the long run.

Archbishop Wenski challenged Florida's legal community to volunteer to represent the unaccompanied minors. McGrorty drew parallels between the current situation and the exodus to the United States of Cuban children in the 1960s, when 14,000 left their homes in two years, and to the 1980 Mariel boatlift when 125,000 Cubans and 25,000 Haitians landed in Florida in about six weeks.

"Many of those were unaccompanied minors" who are now corporate and civic leaders, McGrorty said. "I'm asking Miami to rise once again to the challenge. We need your help."

The Washington-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network, whose affiliates include diocesan legal services offices, has many articles about the child migrant legal situation on its web page: www.cliniclegal.org. Among the materials are a webinar explaining the situation and what sorts of legal services are available, including through CLINIC's affiliates.

CLINIC also offers online training, such as a course starting in September for non-lawyers, working through Catholic Charities legal agencies or other legal organizations, "Representing Unaccompanied Children: What To Do and How To Do It."

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