A combination of weak governments, entrenched poverty, and the increasing power of armed criminal groups in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—the “Northern Triangle” countries of Central America—generated a refugee crisis beginning in the summer of 2014 as thousands of children crossed the border into the United States. While it was not new for unaccompanied children to make this journey, the 2014 numbers were staggering and unprecedented.
Despite intensified enforcement by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the U.S.-Mexico border, the allocation of more resources to target and prosecute migrant smugglers, a public information campaign in the Northern Triangle countries to discourage migration, and, most notably, a major new enforcement effort by Mexico to secure its borders with Guatemala and Belize and block pathways to the United States, the number of unaccompanied migrant minors seeking refuge has not returned to pre-2014 levels.
Children from a non-border country who are caught trying to enter the United States are held briefly by the CBP before they are turned over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR temporarily houses the children while they undergo immigration proceedings. Children are then released into the custody of a sponsor, who is typically a relative, or to a foster care family. At that point, ORR-funded social services in support of the child and the sponsor come to an end.
Many of these children face the threat of violence, physical/psychological abuse, or even loss of life upon return to their country of origin, so they legally qualify to stay in the United States and eventually become U.S. citizens. However, at no point during their immigration proceedings are they guaranteed legal representation. Children who cannot pay for legal services or find a pro-bono attorney to represent them are left entirely alone to mine their way through our very complex immigration system.
According to a study from Syracuse University, unaccompanied children represented by an attorney are nearly five times more likely to be able to remain in the U.S. lawfully compared to those who have no legal representation.
Beyond the challenge unaccompanied children face in securing legal representation, their cases, which normally require lengthy planning and preparation, are rushed through haphazardly. To help stem the flow of unaccompanied children into the country, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a directive in July 2014 requiring immigration courts to prioritize cases involving children and families who have crossed the border into the U.S. The ensuing result is the “rocket docket” whereby court scheduling has sped up the time frame for deportation hearings leading to dire consequences for the children involved as they are forced to return to the extreme danger, violence, and crushing poverty of the countries they fled.
Another unfortunate impact of the “rocket docket” is an infringement on the constitutional right of these children to due process. Unaccompanied migrant children have very little time to find an attorney who can accept and adequately prepare their cases. Further complicating matters, nonprofits with expertise in providing free or low-cost legal services have limited capacity to take on new cases at the pace demanded by accelerated hearings.
NJFON and the JFON network have responded to the UAC crisis in several ways. In the fall of 2014, we sent 10 immigration attorneys to shelters in San Antonio, Texas, to provide intake and counsel to unaccompanied migrant children housed there. Additionally, NJFON is expanding the capacity of the JFON network to represent more of these children. This has included increased capacity at our sites in Austin, South Florida, Iowa, and West Michigan. Finally, we continue to advocate for laws that would protect these children and provide them increased access to justice through legal services.