Editor's Note: Excerpts from this article are taken from Cheryl Zalenski, "The Need for Pro Bono Assistance to Unaccompanied Immigrant Children," Cornerstone (Nat'l Legal Aid & Defender Ass'n), Jan.–Apr. 2015, at 14.
The Critical Need
One year ago, during the summer months of 2014, the media focused attention on the plight of unaccompanied children from Central America who came streaming across the U.S. border, fleeing from gang and cartel violence, abuse, and poverty. These children risked their lives traveling north, hoping to find safety, protection, and opportunity in the United States. They also came seeking to reunify with family members already living and working in the United States; close to 50 percent of these children are reported to have at least one parent in the United States from whom they had been separated for two, five, or even 10 years. These children were either apprehended or turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents, mostly in remote South Texas. The number of children entering the United States increased tenfold from an average of 7,000 in 2011 to almost 70,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2014.
What was once characterized by President Obama as an "urgent humanitarian situation" at our southwest border has turned into a present-day crisis in our nation's overloaded immigration court system. Upon apprehension, the children are immediately placed in adversarial removal proceedings and required to appear in immigration court. Unfortunately, these children are not provided appointed legal representation in the ensuing immigration proceedings. Regardless of age and fluency in English, children frequently appear in immigration court without legal counsel. Currently, only about 32 percent of the children in removal proceedings are represented. The presence of legal counsel is vital to the outcome in these cases and the single most important factor in determining the outcome. Data indicates that children represented by an attorney appear much more frequently in court (92.5 percent) than those without an attorney (27.5 percent). Further, a recent study reviewing data from FY 2012 through FY 2014 indicates that 73 percent of children who are represented in immigration court are ultimately successful in remaining in the United States, while only 15 percent of unrepresented children are similarly successful. Pro bono legal assistance is critical to ensuring that these children are screened adequately for legal relief and receive essential due process protections.
The American Bar Association's Response
ABA leaders were able to witness firsthand the pressing issues confronting these children during a July 2014 visit to Lackland Air Force Base and other youth shelters on the southwest border, including the critical need for legal representation in immigration court and related proceedings. In response to this need, ABA President William Hubbard, with the approval of the Board of Governors, established the Working Group on Unaccompanied Minor Immigrants in late August 2014. In support of its charge to recruit attorneys to represent unaccompanied children, the working group has developed a website to collect ABA training materials and policy on the issue, as well as links to external sources. Additionally, attorneys can volunteer to provide pro bono legal assistance through a link on the webpage. The working group also supported Pro Bono Net's development of the Immigration Advocates Network website dedicated to this issue. This site offers pro bono attorneys resources, including a calendar of trainings, a library of documents, podcasts, a guide to pro bono opportunities, and more. The site also offers similar resources for the provider organizations and for the children and their families.
Making the Case for Pro Bono
Private attorneys may be reluctant to volunteer to assist children in immigration matters, as it is an area of law in which relatively few have experience, but the need among these children is too great to ignore. As minors, unfamiliar with the American and immigration court systems and law, they are at a great disadvantage. Many have no or limited fluency in English. While most of the children are teenagers, some are as young as four or five years old, or even younger. The best assurance of due process for these children is the presence of an attorney, who has a far greater knowledge of the proceedings—even if it is not his or her area of expertise.
Attorneys interested in providing pro bono services to children can build their knowledge and expertise through a variety of resources. In addition to the websites mentioned above, a number of organizations exist across the country to provide training and mentoring to attorneys new to immigration matters like Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).
Providing pro bono legal services to immigrant children can also be a deeply satisfying experience, giving attorneys the opportunity to positively affect a young person's life and obtain a measure of security and safety the child may have never previously experienced.
In addition to the intangible benefits, volunteering to provide pro bono legal assistance offers professional development. Attorneys gain experience in interviewing clients and fact finding. They will also gain litigation experience appearing before a judge in immigration court; or possibly in family law court if they represent a child in a special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) matter. This valuable experience is applicable and transferable to the attorney's daily practice and business and will forever remain a personally memorable experience.
The influx of unaccompanied children from Central America in 2014 was unprecedented in comparison to previous years, and although the numbers are currently down by about 50 percent from last year, they are still much higher than before 2012. This is due to the fact that the conditions in Central America have not changed and continue to remain a threat to the security of families and children residing there. Nelson Mandela once said, "[t]here can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." Today, it is up to the legal community to respond and provide these children with the care and representation they deserve.
Keywords: litigation, children's rights, unaccompanied child immigrants, immigration court, removal proceedings, due process, pro bono opportunities