by Isabella deVito-Brown
Undocumented, unaccompanied children are flooding into the United States, some in an effort to escape violence and poverty, while others are trying to reconnect with family members already in the United States. There are many difficulties they have to face when they arrive in the United States; for example, finding an attorney, affording that attorney and obtaining a green card. There are many organizations being created and legislative acts that are trying to be passed in order to help these children.
Advocates for children’s rights argue that the government should provide extra protection for children because they are vulnerable and cannot take care of themselves. There are organizations that are trying to help undocumented children by creating different programs that will allow pro-bono attorneys to help these children in court. These organizations typically use emotional and ethical appeals to make people want to help the children who are escaping violence and dangers in their countries. Most Republicans and conservative people are against these organizations and are against people helping undocumented children because they believe that instead of allowing the children into the United States the government should try to help the counties the children are trying to escape from. On the other hand, Democratic government officials are trying to create new ways to help undocumented, unaccompanied minors obtain green cards even though there are many hurdles.
According to an analysis by San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office, juvenile immigration cases in San Francisco have nearly tripled from 296 cases three years ago to 865 cases just in the first nine months of 2014. Ana Herrera, an immigration attorney at Dolores Street Community Services in San Francisco, says that this influx in illegal immigration is causing a crisis on the legal system of San Francisco. “There’s just no capacity for the few pro-bono attorneys that exist in the city to attend court with each of these kids,” she states. In a recent study it was shown that children are 43% more likely to be deported if an attorney does not represent them in the courtroom. () It is evident that if undocumented children are going to be allowed to stay in the United States, there needs to be more pro-bono attorneys available to them.
In order to help these children receive legal guidance to stay in the Country, David Campos, a legislator who emigrated from Guatemala himself, brought up the idea of funding organizations with pro-bono attorneys said,
These kids are escaping violence and persecution, and they’re coming to this country because they want to be safe…we as a country have an obligation to at least give these kids due process.
Governor Brown is backing him up by suggesting funding nonprofit legal groups that will help kids win citizenship. With more funding lawyers will be able to help unaccompanied children stay in the United States instead of being deported back to places plagued with violence.
On August 19th 2014 California Governor Jerry Brown and other California, lawmakers proposed giving $3 million to nonprofit groups that provide legal services for illegal immigrant children. On September 16th 2014, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously approved this idea.
Case Study 2
This next story is about two sisters, 16 years apart but very close emotionally. Both Yesenia (last name not disclosed) and Jennifer lived in El Salvador before Yesenia decided to come to the United States to go to college. She left El Salvador about ten years before gangs moved into their town. Even though it was difficult sometimes, Yesenia kept in contact with Jennifer and her other siblings, sending them boxes of clothes and calling often. As the years went on, Yesenia says that their conversations started to become darker as violence seeped into their town. Eventually gang members began targeting Jennifer, sexually harassing her in and out of school. It became apparent that she had to leave their town in El Salvador when one day a couple of gang members followed her and when she tried to run away, one boy pulled out a gun and started shooting at her.
Having known this day would come, Yesenia had saved up enough money to hire a coyote (someone who smuggles people into different counties.). The coyote managed to get Jennifer out of El Salvador, but Jennifer ended up getting caught swimming across the Rio Grande and ended up spending two months in government custody. Eventually, Yesenia was given clearance to become Jennifer’s legal guardian. Jennifer now lives with Yesenia and Yesenia’s four-year-old son. But their troubles are still not over. Jennifer still has to go to court to plead for a green card. They have two months to raise enough money to hire a lawyer so they are quite unsure of how the case will turn out.
The People and Organizations
There are many different people and organizations that are trying to help children like Jennifer, for example Kid In Need of Defense (KIND), who help immigrant children find and afford legal assistance. Angelina Jolie and the Microsoft Corporation created KIND to help kids like Jennifer receive advice and have legal representation in court in order to help them stay in the United States, otherwise they run the risk of being sent back to the violence and poverty they escaped from. KIND is a pro-bono movement comprised of law firms, corporations, nongovernmental organizations, universities and volunteers who try to provide legal counsel to unaccompanied and undocumented children. Although KIND does not explicitly say what political affiliation they have, one can infer that they support the Democratic ideals. It is clear that they want to help undocumented children create a life here that is away from violence and poverty.
One pro-bono attorney is Meredith Stewart who started working at KIND in 2009. She studied immigration law at the University of Miami School of Law but she was unsure of how to help people using her professional skills until she found KIND. “…. I was always doing things through my community and church, but with KIND I could use my experience as an attorney to help children,” she said. She has worked on six cases since she stated volunteering at KIND and has successfully obtained green cards for at least two of her cases, one case being a boy from Honduras and another case of two brothers from Haiti. She is continuing to work with undocumented children, hoping to convince the court to issue them green cards. “They are children. Getting to see them through the process and seeing the change they go through from a scared child in immigration court to this new-found confidence and even happiness is amazing.”
There are also people in the government who are advocating for illegal immigrant children. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., believes that we should help the children, saying: “I say we are the strongest, wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world and children are coming into our borders and we should protect them. Now I will say this, follow the law, and the law says that we must put the children’s interests first, which is what President Barack Obama is doing.” () Gutierrez has been an advocate for immigrant rights and especially for illegal immigrant children. “No child should appear in immigration court and be expected to advocate for themselves. Children do not have law degrees and most of the children currently arriving at our border have limited English skills… It is silly…to expect a child to stand alone before an immigration court…A child who does not have a lawyer probably will not qualify for asylum, a victim’s visa, or any other form of relief, even when the law is on their side.”
In 2008 George W. Bush signed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization. This made sure that illegal children must be given to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) within seventy-two hours of being in custody. HHS is supposed to keep them somewhere humanely until it is possible to give the child to a family member or guardian in the United States. This law also made it so that it was mandatory for children to be given counsel to help them in legal proceedings, the counsel is to help them understand how to apply for asylum or figure out how to stay in the United States.
Child immigration reform continues to be an on going discussion that is paramount in the minds of government officials and in the general public at this time. For example, on Tuesday, Obama stated that one of his top priorities for the rest of his term will be immigration reform. There are many different discussions happening around immigration reform, and many different efforts to help undocumented, unaccompanied immigrant children. There are still many laws that need to be changed and talked about in order to come to a consensus on child immigration reform. It is hard to tell what will happen in the future for child immigration laws but right now it seems as though that at least in California and through the KIND organization that there is hope for undocumented, unaccompanied minors to receive legal assistance for their deportation cases.