Meredith Linsky, director of the ABA Commission on Immigration, was part of an ABA delegation that went to the border in late July to see the situation firsthand, along with ABA President James R. Silkenat and ABA President-elect William C. Hubbard.
She presented facts about the situation: In 2011 in facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, there were 369 beds designated for unaccompanied minors; today there are 1,700 -- soon to reach 2,000.
In 2011, the children rotated in and out of the system between 30 and 90 days; but today the reunification with family and friends has sped up significantly, so that children are leaving between 7 to 30 days after arrival, with an average of 24.
The unaccompanied minors go before immigration judges, but have no right to government-appointed counsel and there are too few pro bono attorneys to adequately help them, Linksy said.
Working with the number of children arriving in South Texas now is not sustainable in a pro bono model, and there needs to be infrastructure to support the pro bono response, said Linsky. However, with the fast-tracking now in place for speeding the children through the system, there is no time to find, screen and mentor lawyers to help them.
According to a July report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, of 404 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico who were interviewed, 58 percent presented with potential or actual need for international protection. Hence, they would be eligible for the Special Immigrant Juvenile visa (for children who are abandoned, abused or neglected), the U visa (for crime victims) or the T visa (for victims of human trafficking), but a child would need an attorney to help them obtain the visa, so most of them never get one.
Linsky introduced Meghan Johnson, managing attorney with ProBar, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, Texas. Johnson is working with detainee children coming in from the northern triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Among the children, Johnson sees a range of issues, including a lack of education and resources as well as the effects of exposure to gang violence and other traumas. Some of the children had been on “home arrest,” meaning they stayed home full-time to avoid the gangs.
The children are often disoriented after the journey. The best case scenario for the children Johnson sees is that the child came over the border via a smuggler by car or bus, but most of them are not coming that way. They’ve often been robbed and have been at risk of sexual assault.
She gave snapshots of three children she’s recently worked with:
S., 17, is from Guatemala, and his father is an alcoholic. His parents separated, which left his mother with a large debt. She left for the United States to find work cleaning houses so she would be able to send money to support S. and his four sisters, whom she left with their bed-ridden grandmother. S. had started drinking before he left to get his father’s attention. He fled for the United States with the goal of helping his mother, but at the shelter in South Texas, he shows signs of depression, suicidal ideation and cutting, although he has found religion.
N., 12, arrived from El Salvador, where her father is a gang member. Her mother fled to the United States and left her with her grandmother. Her father would visit and sexually abuse her. N. told her grandmother about it, and her father was arrested, but he was released because N. wouldn’t testify. Her father threatened to kill N. and her mother when he got out. N. is smart and fully functional, but clearly suffering from trauma.
J. is an 18-year-old Honduran. His mother has mental health issues, is homeless and a substance abuser, and was prostituting herself. J. lived with his grandfather, who hit him. He ran away and lived in an orphanage. He resisted joining a gang, but was savvy and stayed friendly with them. He came to U.S. alone at 17, but at 18 he is no longer a minor nor eligible for the protections afforded them. He lives in a homeless shelter in South Texas run by nuns. He has no relatives here, but would like to join the military and write a book about his experiences.
Johnson said case workers want to work slowly with the children and have them tell their stories in their time and as they feel safe and not be forced to draw them out in an accelerated fashion.