“We are talking about children running for their lives in many instances,” according to Representative Luis Guitierrez of Illinois, a co-sponsor of the proposed “Fair Day in Court for Kids Act,” a bill that would ensure the provision of legal counsel to immigrant youths. Nearly half of the immigrant minors who enter the United States have no attorney to advocate on their behalf. With skyrocketing murder rates and gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the children who need legal assistance are a growing concern to lawmakers and immigration authorities.
According to the American Immigration Lawyers Association, 49 percent of the minors in U.S. immigration courts in 2014 and 2015 had no attorney to argue on their behalf. The children who obtain legal representation are five times more likely to be allowed to stay in the United States, so it’s clear that legal counsel can mean the difference between safety and deportation, or even potentially the difference between life and death.
WHY ARE SO MANY CHILDREN ENTERING THE UNITED STATES?
Most children coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras arrive in southern Texas because it is the shortest distance from Central America to the United States. Many of the minors ride through Mexico atop freight trains until they reach Reynosa, which is directly across the border from Hidalgo, Texas. While most of the youths are escaping from gang violence at home, others are seeking to reunite with relatives in the United States.
Historically, people have fled to the United States to obtain protection from persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, gender, orientation, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The need for such protection is just as desperate in the 21st century as it has ever been in the past. If you are an immigrant seeking asylum or struggling with any other immigration issue, whether you’re a minor or an adult, it is very much in your best interests to seek the counsel of a good immigration lawyer as quickly as possible. In the southwest U.S., asylum-seekers should speak with an experienced Las Vegas immigration attorney.
Vice.com recently investigated the case of Manuel Portillo, who entered the U.S. at age 16 to escape Salvadoran gang violence. He originally sought asylum and a court date was scheduled, but when he couldn’t find an attorney, Manuel feared that he would be deported if he showed up for the hearing. Manuel continued going to school and working part-time. He’s 18 now, and in January, he was stopped by the police in Austin.
WHY DO ASYLUM-SEEKERS SO DESPERATELY NEED ATTORNEYS?
When Manuel could not produce a driver’s license – because he cannot obtain one – he was sent before a judge who turned him over to immigration authorities. Manuel was placed in the Pearsall Detention Center and then transferred to the Rio Grande Detention Center, where he was told he was being returned to El Salvador. A pro-bono attorney has now stepped in to represent Manuel, but none of this would have happened if Manuel had not missed his original asylum hearing and if he’d had an attorney to speak on his behalf at that hearing.
Representative Guitierrez believes the proposed Fair Day in Court for Kids Act is the right legislative answer. “We need to make sure they have access to a lawyer, translator, and a fair chance to navigate the American legal system so that they can get justice if they qualify for asylum and are fighting deportation.” A total of 54 congressional representatives are sponsoring the bill, and similar legislation is under consideration in the Senate.
The Justice Department is also taking action. According to Lou Ruffino, speaking for the department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, that office is also making more legal services available to unaccompanied minors. Ruffino noted that the AmeriCorps program provides funding for attorneys representing unaccompanied minors as well as legal orientation for the guardians of those minors.
Karen Lucas, the Associate Director for Advocacy with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Vice, “We see a lot of kids who do not understand the process, and it has a great impact on their ability to access asylum.” She said that more than 89 percent of the minors deported in the past two years had no attorney, so most of them failed to appear in court, and that failure usually leads to deportation.
“Unfortunately, we do not have a good program in place for assisting unaccompanied minors in general and especially for children seeking asylum,” according to Las Vegas immigration attorney Margo Chernysheva. “It should be as important as criminal representation but our system does not have it in place and so these children who suffered in their native countries continue to suffer after they enter the U.S.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO HELP THE CHILDREN?
Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status can be given to children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. T-visas are granted to victims of human trafficking, and U-visas can be granted for victims of certain other crimes. The purpose of the SIJ status program is to help immigrant children in the United States who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected. But to take advantage of any of these options, an unaccompanied juvenile needs an attorney who can show why the child qualifies for a T-visa, U-visa, or SIJ status.
Statistics establish that the odds of prevailing in immigration court and being granted asylum are much better for minors who have the assistance of a lawyer. The government is under no obligation to provide lawyers to anyone in immigration court proceedings. Nevertheless, the government itself is always represented by an attorney in such proceedings. Children in the immigration courts rarely have any way to hire a lawyer, even though it’s reasonable to assume they do not comprehend fully the nature of the proceedings or the law. Most unaccompanied minors do not speak English, so they face multiple, difficult-to-understand obstacles.
The children who are arriving at the southern border come from one of the most violent regions in the world, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association encourages experienced immigration attorneys to offer assistance. Many attorneys are working pro-bono and making other sacrifices to help these children, but Congress could ease the crisis simply by passing the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act and requiring immigration courts to provide attorneys to unaccompanied minors. The United States provides public defenders to accused rapists and murderers. Surely we can do the same for the desperate children who are seeking our help at the border.