Stranded at the Mexican Border, More Kids Face Immigration Court Alone

Children fleeing Central America’s Northern Triangle alone are finding hope in New York City.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent in Mission, Texas, prepares to take an unaccompanied 13-year-old Salvadorian minor to a processing center after he crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Dec 10, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As a rising number of children make the dangerous trek to the U.S. border alone from Central America, officials and advocates in New York City are reflecting on the progress of a unique program created to support them. On Wednesday, city council members and community stakeholders gathered at city hall to assess the Unaccompanied Minors Initiative as it entered its second year.

With the help of community partners, city officials from Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration, and $2.5 million in funding from the city council, the program connects these children to legal services, education, health care, and other resources. Since its inception in 2014, more than 5,000 attorneys and volunteers have been trained to assist kids who arrive in the U.S. alone. Just like adults in immigration deportation proceedings, unaccompanied children are not entitled to legal representation in the U.S., so many are left to navigate the maze of immigration court without help.

“The first time I went to immigration court, I did not have a lawyer, and I was really nervous,” said Paola Martinez Bernardez, a 15-year-old immigrant from Honduras who testified before the city council. “I thought they were going to deport me. I didn’t know how to defend myself.”

Paola is one of hundreds of children who have been connected to legal representation through New York City’s initiative in the past year. After her initial trip to immigration court alone, she was assigned to a lawyer through The Door, a youth services organization participating in the city’s program. Now her deportation case has been closed, and she is waiting for her green card. “I hope that the city will keep helping people like me,” Paola said.

In November, more than 5,000 Central American children traveling alone were stopped at the southwest border with Mexico—more than twice as many as were stopped during November 2014, according to The New York Times. Unlike adults, children cannot be immediately deported after being detained at the border. Though their journey through removal proceedings begins the moment they step foot into the country without documents, the children are first placed in the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency that assists new populations as they enter the U.S.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it would open at least three new shelters in Texas and California this month to accommodate the influx of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and economic deprivation in Central America’s Northern Triangle. The shelters, run by the ORR, offer a continuum of care to children while officials attempt to place them with a family member or another adult in the U.S. who can sponsor them during their immigration proceedings.

New York City receives the third-largest number of these children of any jurisdiction in the country apart from Harris County, Texas, and Los Angeles County, California, according to Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of De Blasio’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Of the three jurisdictions, New York City’s program is unique. Since August 2015 alone, Agarwal testified, the program has screened 1,800 children. While children may arrive in the southwest, they are then shuttled wherever there is space for them—or wherever they find a family member willing to take them.

“If you’re apprehended in Texas and there’s no bed space, they may put you on a bus or a plane to Florida,” said Lenni Benson, an immigration law professor at New York Law School. “Then maybe they find out you have an aunt in Indiana, so they ship you there.”

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Paola’s story has a happy ending, but her outcome is not the norm. The vast majority of jurisdictions have no such initiative to guarantee legal representation to these kids, and most of them are left to rely on scarce pro bono legal representation. Roughly 70 percent of unaccompanied kids in the U.S. do not have legal representation, according to the American Bar Association.

“It’s been a challenge for legal service providers to find a way to use already limited resources to meet the needs of these kids,” said Alexandra Fung, managing attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. “We’re all trying to figure out how best to serve them. Children have special vulnerabilities that need to be accounted for when they’re undergoing an adversarial proceeding.”

The fate of an unaccompanied child can depend largely on which part of the country they wind up in. A Politico analysis of government data from May 2015 found that child migrants in Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia are three times more likely to receive a deportation order from an immigration judge than those in California, Florida, or New York. Access to pro bono services varies widely depending on where a child lands.

While the number of kids arriving alone on U.S. soil is rising, the problem is not a new one. In 2006, Benson was approached by a New York City immigration judge who told her he was seeing more and more children alone in the courts. She started the Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit housed within the law school that provides free immigration services to unaccompanied minors. The project is currently juggling the cases of 500 kids, and Benson noted that the factors that force children to flee Central America show no sign of abating. Those kids are then pulled into the confusing and complex U.S. court system.

“These children are in peril,” Benson said. “Our country believes in the rule of law, but the rule of law does not work when you don’t have parties who can participate in it. We just slow the whole system down when there are no lawyers.”