For children facing deportation, problems abound

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Dec 10 16:26:44 UTC 2006

For children facing deportation, problems abound

Court proceedings are often haphazard affairs, with language barriers,
frustrated judges and scarce legal help.

By Cara Anna
Friday, December 08, 2006

NEW YORK He paces outside New York's immigration court,scanning faces.
Then he finds them, two nervous-looking older teens. "Habla ingls?" he
asks them. No, they say. He pauses. "You have a passa-port? ID? Nada?" No.
The lawyer widens his eyes. "Mother, father? Family? Tio, tia? Nobody?
Just you?" Yes, his new clients say. In minutes, these boys will tell a
judge whether they want to fight deportation. Even with the language
problem, they're lucky they at least have a lawyer. A list outside the
courtroom says 37 children are here today, and just three of them have
lawyers. Of approximately 7,800 unaccompanied children who passed through
government custody in the fiscal year that just ended, more than half went
to court alone, observers say.

There's no way to be sure. The government doesn't track legal aid in these
cases. It can't say how many children show up for immigration court at
all. A new study by the Vera Institute of Justice should offer the first
idea.  The group is looking at 18,000 cases of children in government
custody between January 2003 and July of this year, and it shared some
early results with The Associated Press. Two-thirds of the cases had
closed. Of those, 70 percent ended with children being deported, and just
2 percent won asylum. Most of the rest asked to be sent back. A look at
America's immigration courts shows a system in which frustrated judges
find themselves explaining the law to 12-year-olds, often through a
translator. The government treats detained children as adults, giving them
a phone list of volunteer lawyers. Often, no call is made.

Nonprofits and volunteer lawyers sometimes appear, trying to offer
assistance before youths accept deportation. Some judges simply ask if
anyone in the courtroom can step in to help. Though some new efforts are
beginning to address the issue, advocates worry that child trafficking,
smuggling or abusemay go unnoticed because children don't know how to ask
for help. "I don't know what asylum means. . . . I am afraid to go back to
Haiti," a 10-year-old Haitian girl told interviewers for a Harvard report
released this summer. The report, "Seeking Asylum Alone," criticized the
government for not providing lawyers and for not tracking the problem.
Caught at the border or deeper inside the country, the immigrant children
are most often from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Until
2003, unaccompanied children with no guardian to claim them were placed in
detention centers, where they sometimes mixed with violent offenders.

Now the children are sent to special shelters run by the federal Office of
Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, in eight states: Arizona, California,
Washington, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, New York and Florida. About 60
percent are released once a family member or guardian can be found,
sometimes within days. That leaves little time for nonprofit groups and
volunteer lawyers to meet with the children and try to know their cases.
After release, finding a lawyer is up to the family and is often not done.

"The challenge is ensuring they get help when they leave," says Martha
Newton, the director of ORR. Even in shelters, many children are far from
pools of available attorneys. One Texas shelter is in Nixon,a city of
2,246 about 70 miles south of Austin. Not many lawyers want to go, says
Teresa Coles-Davila, a private attorney who coordinates free legal aid for
children in San Antonio's immigration court. But the need is growing, she
says. When the shelter first called her for help three years ago, it had a
half-dozen kids. Now it has close to 100, and a maximum capacity of 136.

"No one pays me to do this," Coles-Davila says. "My position is,
eventually the good will is going to run out." Good will hasn't been
enough in Houston. Until a few months ago, Anne Chandler of the University
of Houston's immigration clinic was the only lawyer focusing only on
children's cases. Five shelters for detained children are located nearby,
with a combined 172 beds. Another shelter is a three-hour drive away.
Chandler says less than one-third of immigrant children in the Houston
area get a lawyer. "I feel I'm part of a system that's malfunctioning,"
she says. Recognizing the need for more than good will for unrepresented
children, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees
immigration courts, has announced a new legal assistance initiative at
four sites.

The Vera Institute of Justice will give children one-on-one legal
information and help find volunteer lawyers in Corpus Christi, Seattle,
Vincennes, Ind., and an undetermined site in Illinois. The institute also
has started giving grants to nonprofits in places such as New York and
Houston. In a separate effort to reach children after they leave
detention, the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children was
launched last year with largely private funding. So far, it has matched
lawyers with more than 400 kids. With seed money from ORR, the Immigrant
Children's Advocacy Project in Chicago assigns each child a bilingual
advocate who meets with the child every week, finds legal representation
and goes with the child to court.

A similar national pilot program is envisioned in a bill that has passed
the Senate but has been in a House subcommittee since February. Judges and
advocates say children without lawyers slow down court proceedings, waste
taxpayer money and keep children in government custody longer than they
should be. These kids have enough stress already, says Denise Slavin, the
Miami-based president of the National Association of Immigration Judges.
She likes the idea of appointing them a lawyer if they can't find one
themselves. "If we changed the system," she says, "maybe children would be
a great place to start."

Find this article at:


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list