I know there are many vulnerable groups of people in the world and no end to important causes to support with either your valuable time or other assistance. But one cause—one group of particularly vulnerable people—really touched my heart and stood out from the rest when I first learned about their plight. This was in part because I knew that I—and we, as the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division—could really make a difference in their lives and be part of a movement to change the treatment of an often-invisible group of young people in our country.
I am talking about children who come to the United States without a parent or legal guardian. These “unaccompanied children” come from countries across the world to seek a safe haven and freedom from fear, severe abuse, persecution, civil conflict, abandonment, or desperate poverty.
More than 8,000 of these children come to the United States each year and are placed in deportation proceedings; more than half must face these proceedings without an attorney, as there is no appointed counsel in the immigration system, even for children alone. It may be hard to believe, but thousands of these children—from toddlers to teenagers—appear in court alone each year. Without counsel, children with viable claims are often unable to present them to a judge; these children can then be deported back to situations where their well-being, or even their lives, may be in danger.
That is why the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division is partnering with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) to help end this fundamental lapse in due process by providing pro bono representation for these children. Some of you may have already heard of KIND or met some of its staff at the Division’s Fall Meeting and National Solo & Small Firm Conference in Denver, Colorado, this past November, where they held a presentation on their work.
KIND, founded in October 2008 by the Microsoft Corporation and actress and activist Angelina Jolie, works to find caring and compassionate lawyers throughout the legal community to represent unaccompanied children. KIND has partnered with more than 140 law firms, corporations, universities, and others to ensure that these children have a fair chance to make their case for U.S. protection in our immigration system.
KIND has worked with more than 3,200 children to date from some 53 countries, including those in Central America, West Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. A number of KIND’s children came to the United States after the earthquake in Haiti. Others from Central America fled gang persecution or severe domestic violence. Some of KIND’s clients from China have likely been trafficked, while a number of KIND’s clients from fled gender-based violence or political persecution as a result of their family’s activities. Others fled desperate poverty or to find parents who left them years previously. Unbelievably, KIND’s youngest client is two years old.
What really hit home for me was that, regardless of why they came or where they came from, these children are usually desperate to find safety and security and are uniquely vulnerable as a result. They know few if any adults they can trust here, speak little or no English (some don’t even speak Spanish or French but only a language indigenous to their region), and have no understanding of the U.S. legal system or of their rights. They are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by those eager to take advantage of their precarious situation.
“These are uniquely vulnerable children, some of whom have not had a caring adult in their lives for a long time, if ever,” says KIND Executive Director Wendy Young. “The attorneys who volunteer with us often become that trusted adult, and it is amazing to see the happy transformation in the child during the course of the child’s meetings with the pro bono attorney. And it’s not only the child who changes—the attorneys also realize that their work can alter the course of a child’s life forever. This affects them deeply.”
If you are hesitant to volunteer because you lack knowledge of immigration law—do not worry. Attorneys who volunteer with KIND do not need any immigration experience. KIND offers introductory and specialized trainings to volunteers and one-on-one mentoring throughout the life of a case. KIND also provides training materials and works to keep pro bono attorneys informed on the latest decisions and changes in law. Taking a case with KIND yields courtroom experience, new skills in immigration law, direct contact with a child client, and the invaluable opportunity to help a child in need and right an injustice in our legal system.
KIND recognizes that not all children are eligible to remain in the United States under law, but it is the organization’s position that these children should have lawyers to help them complete their case and return to their home country in the safest way possible and in a way that is best for the child. To further this goal, KIND runs a pilot project in Guatemala in partnership with the Global Fund for Children that helps minors deported from the United States to Guatemala reintegrate into their home communities so their return is safe and sustainable. The circumstances that cause a child to flee are often unchanged when the child returns, so KIND works with the child before her/his return to identify the child’s needs. KIND has partnered with five nongovernmental organizations in Guatemala that provide the services these children often identify as vital for them to be able to stay in their communities, such as shelter, health care, counseling, education, and skills training. KIND has successfully helped return a number of children and continues to expand its services to reach more children in the United States who are returning to Guatemala.
Our work with KIND formally began when the ABA Board of Governors approved the partnership in its action calendar in June 2011. KIND presented its work at the Fall Meeting and National Solo & Small Firm Conference in Denver and provided a training session on the representation of unaccompanied children and on asylum, special immigrant juvenile status, U and T visas, Violence Against Women Act petitions, and voluntary departure. KIND also recorded several podcasts to assist those who want to learn more about how to handle these cases. KIND is following up with participants interested in offering their legal skills to these vulnerable children and is eager to work with even more Division members. I am happy to say that additional KIND trainings will be held at upcoming Division meetings, including the 2012 Spring Meeting, May 17–19, in Charleston, South Carolina, and likely at the 2012 Fall Meeting, October 11–13, in Seattle, Washington.
I very much hope that you will join me in my excitement about this new partnership with KIND and its movement to protect the rights of unaccompanied children in the United States. I strongly urge you to take a KIND case. You may be surprised by what you learn—not only about the law and our immigration system, but about the children you meet and about yourself.