Saturday, December 09, 2006

For children facing deportation, problems abound

This is a huge human rights issue. All children attending immigration hearing proceedings are / should be entitled to legal representation. Unfortunately, as this piece makes clear, their needs are going unmet despite the incredibly heavy costs associated with processing them through. This tragic situation is layered over an already tragic one of forces beyond their control placing them in this precarious circumstance, together with the dangers that inhere within this status as either a child immigrant or imprisoned detainee. There's got to be another way. Dostoeyevsky, the great Russian writer and philosopher says that we know about the humanity of a society by the quality of its prisons. Time yet again to turn that mirror toward us to see what we're doing and not doing to children. -Angela

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 inglés?" 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."

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