I met Maria a month ago when she walked into a tiny conference room in a children’s detention facility near the US/Mexico border. Maria is sixteen years old and was eight months pregnant. For the next two hours, she detailed a heartbreaking childhood spent fearing her brutally abusive father. She talked about the day members of the gang MS-13 abducted and raped her and how she eventually fled her home country because of their continuing threats against her and her family. Finally, Maria recounted her two-month journey to the United States, during which she suffered a violent assault by a drunk smuggler, her apprehension after crossing into the US, and her utter joy when she learned that her unborn child had survived the ordeal.
Maria’s heart wrenching story is not unique. She is one of thousands of children who pass through our immigration system every year unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, each with their own motivation for making the perilous trip. Many of these children, particularly those from Central American countries, spend time in the custody of the Division of Unaccompanied Children’s Services of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
Most of the children who spend time in ORR custody are reunited with a friend or family member who serves as their sponsor here in the US. The children are placed in immigration removal proceedings and unless they can establish a legal basis to remain here, they will eventually be sent back to the conditions they fled.
I received Maria’s case through ProBAR’s Children’s Project. ProBAR provides specially designed “Know Your Rights” presentations to hundreds of children in shelters in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In 2012, a record breaking 13,625 children were referred to ORR. ProBAR also screens children to identify those with the strongest claims for relief, frequently based on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and coordinates their pro bono representation.
Unfortunately, in the Rio Grande Valley, the demand for pro bono representation far exceeds supply. Hundreds of miles from a major legal market, ProBAR’s pro bono coordinator faces significant obstacles to securing representation for even those children who appear to be entitled to relief. To further complicate matters, most children are only in a shelter for a short period of time before being released to a sponsor or transferred to another facility, so cases need to proceed quickly while the child is still in the jurisdiction.
In early September, we began the process of seeking SIJS for Maria. At the same time, Cara Vasquez (Houston) initiated proceedings on behalf of another ProBAR client, Jesus.
As we move forward with these two cases, we are working to identify how DLA Piper can best help ProBAR serve this population. We plan to expand our direct representation in Texas, explore ways to complete cases of children who leave Texas before their cases are final, provide research assistance and use our IT resources to design more efficient templates for SIJS cases. We are confident this will be a productive partnership that will help ensure that this vulnerable population receives legal representation so children like Maria are not denied their right to remain in the United States simply because they did not have a lawyer.
Blog post copied with permission. The original post can be found on DLA Piper's website.
Note from DLA Piper: To protect the identity of our clients, we have not used their real names.
For an in-depth discussion of the problems faced by unaccompanied Mexican children, please see Children at the Border: The Screening, Protection and repatriation of Unaccompanied Mexican Minors, an Appleseed report.