I spend my days listening to children’s stories whose bright and complex futures I rarely learn. Each day, I wake up at 7:30 a.m. and drive an hour to the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters that dot the Rio Grande Valley, minutes away from where the migrant children crossed the South Texas border. My car is also my office, complete with a banana and granola bar, and a rolling cart with whiteboard markers and posters for the Know Your Rights presentation I give every morning. At my small desk at the shelter, I place toys, coloring pages, and colored pencils for the children to play with while I interview them in the afternoon. For months during the Covid-19 pandemic, I turned my home into my office, providing Know Your Rights presentations and legal interviews over Zoom, until we finally were able to visit the shelters again this past month.
The children we serve primarily come from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, or what is more commonly known as the “Northern Triangle.” These countries have experienced decades of civil war, gang violence, and natural disasters. These countries also have some of the highest rates of poverty and inequality in Latin America, and the governments in this region have been overall unwilling or unable to protect the citizens that are most vulnerable.
The reasons the children come to the United States are varied and interconnected. They migrate to reunify with a parent or family member in the United States, to study, to work, to escape poverty, to avoid gang persecution and recruitment, or to flee abuse from a family member or person in their community. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated some of these reasons for coming to the United States with many schools still closed in Central America because of the pandemic and with the economic downturn from the pandemic causing poverty rates to increase in Latin America by 22 million people between 2019-2020 .
Although unaccompanied migrant children may be traveling to the United States for similar reasons, every migrant child is unique and carries with them their own narrative. The children that we serve in the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters can be as young as newborn babies or as old as teenagers just about to turn 18 years old. Some of the female children may be pregnant, may give birth to their children while in the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, or may have crossed with their own babies into the United States. Some of the children come from Mayan communities in Guatemala —speaking K’iche’, Q’eqchi’, or may be from Honduras’s Afro-Caribbean Garifuna community—and may have limited proficiency in Spanish or be completely bilingual in Spanish and their indigenous language.
When I present Know Your Rights presentations to the children at the shelters, I am reminded daily of the U.S. immigration system’s inherent unfairness. I tell the children that although their narratives and their reasons for coming to the United States matter, they are at risk of deportation by the U.S. government for entering without papers. Although finding a lawyer is the most important action they can take for their legal case, I have to tell them that the U.S. government will not provide a lawyer and that the only government lawyer who will be in the courtroom will be trying to deport them. While the U.S. government does provide some limited funding for representation of unaccompanied children in deportation proceedings, the latest statistics show 55 percent of children (both accompanied and unaccompanied) are unrepresented by counsel in immigration court. There is no right to appointed counsel for these children as there would be in criminal court.
During the presentation, the children respond to each piece of information: silence falls as I talk about deportation proceedings, backs straighten up as I discuss the different forms of legal relief, and hands clap as I thank the children for their attention and participation. At the end of the presentation, I invite the children to write a dream or goal they have for their lives in the United States on a Post-It note so that they can stay grounded as they continue their legal journeys. I want the children to know that they and their dreams matter despite the adversities they may face in this country. Collecting the posters and pens, I say goodbye and then prepare for the afternoon’s one-on-one interviews.
“Why did you come to the United States?” is the interview’s first question to gain a better understanding of the child’s story and circumstance. Often, the child responds with reasons such as “I came here to go to school” or “I came here to work.” Later in the interview when we talk about their caretakers at home or fears about returning to their country, other reasons may surface including abuse, gang intimidation, and extortion. Sometimes, the children’s answers may seem to an outside observer to be contradictory. For example, they could respond that their mothers are good, but have hit them and left bruises. They might say they are not afraid to go back to their country, yet they recount frequent gang threats against them and their family for not joining a gang. My job as a screener is not to judge or to reconcile these inherent contradictions, but to document everything the children say and act as a witness and scribe to what they have shared. At the end of the interviews, I thank the children for their bravery in sharing their stories and often never see them again. Most of the children will reunify with a family member or close family friend within 30 to 60 days of arriving to the shelters and will continue their legal cases where they have reunified.
Because of ProBAR’s proximity to the border and the front-line nature of our work, I am often asked what should be done about the various challenges that migrant children face in this country. What the children—and the U.S. immigration system—need, is a system of universal representation for all migrants. Currently, no immigrant -- child or adult -- is guaranteed an attorney by the federal government to represent them in immigration proceedings, except a tiny fraction of those who have been found incompetent by an immigration judge to represent themselves. Universal representation ensures that all immigrants facing the threat of deportation—regardless of their age, criminal background, or how well their legal case aligns with criteria in U.S. law—are guaranteed free legal representation. The impact of representation on a child’s case is tremendous. In children’s cases, including those of unaccompanied children, immigration judges granted some form of relief to just 8.1 percent of unrepresented children. When the child had an attorney, their chance of relief to remain in the country jumped to 47.6 percent. The Biden Administration has taken note of the importance of access to legal representation by signing this past month a memorandum to expand access to legal representation and the courts. This is a good start; however, a system of universal representation will ultimately be needed to ensure all immigrants have their fair day in court.
I believe the Biden Administration must also move to terminate Title 42, an obscure public health law that allows the border to be closed in times of health emergencies, because it both prevents all migrants from their right to due process in the United States and propagates family separation. This policy allows for the expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers, and although the Biden Administration has opted not to apply it to children who arrive unaccompanied, most migrant adults and families continue to be expelled upon entering the United States.
With children able to enter the U.S. and adults prevented from entering the country, Title 42 has become a de-facto mechanism of family separation. At ProBAR, we have observed several cases of children whose parents and family members traveled with them and sent the children across the river to the U.S. alone because of Title 42. This pattern of families sending their children alone across the river because of Title 42 has also been seen by advocates and migrants in the tent camps in Tijuana, Mexico, as well as in Donna, Texas. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas even commented on this trend last month, acknowledging that because of Title 42, “some families self-separate to allow their children to enter the United States unaccompanied.”
If the Biden Administration wants to create a “fair and humane” immigration system, as President Biden himself committed to doing during the election, then the Administration should cease to apply Title 42, and establish a system of universal representation so that all migrants have both the opportunity to enter the country and to have access to attorneys in their legal cases. Without these changes, the system will continue to separate families and prevent equitable access to justice and legal representation.
As advocates, it is our responsibility to empower our clients and to uplift their voices as we envision a better immigration system in this country. Three years ago, soon after I started at ProBAR, a child offered me a bracelet he had woven at the shelter and said, “Gracias por prestarme la atención. No todos lo hacen.” (“Thank you for paying attention to me. Not everyone does it.”) It is a gift and privilege to spend my days listening to children’s stories, and it is on all of us—as advocates, volunteers, and concerned citizens—to pay attention, to listen to the children and those directly impacted by current immigration policies, and to continue to fight for a more just and equitable immigration system for all.
About the Author:
Charlotte Weiss is a Senior Unaccompanied Child Legal Specialist at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) and has been with the organization since 2017. She graduated from Wellesley College in 2016 with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature and Education Studies. Prior to working at ProBAR, Charlotte worked as a bilingual elementary school teacher at the Rafael Hernandez School in Roxbury, Massachusetts. In the fall, Charlotte will be attending law school at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.