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Experts separate facts from myths about migrant children

April 12, 2021

While every criminal defendant in the United States has the right to a free, government-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one, that’s not true in immigration court. In that court system, no one – not even a young child – is given a government-appointed lawyer.

It is not known how many unaccompanied migrant children have lawyers in their immigration proceedings.

It is not known how many unaccompanied migrant children have lawyers in their immigration proceedings.

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In fact, about half of all children appear in immigration court without a legal representative, according to American Bar Association experts at an April 9 webinar, hosted by the ABA Commission on Immigration, aimed at dispelling myths about unaccompanied immigrant children.

According to panelist Mark Greenberg, a commission member and director of the Human Services Initiative at the Immigration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., it is not known how many unaccompanied children – immigrants 17 years old or younger who arrive at the border without a parent or legal guardian – have lawyers in immigration proceedings. “It would be great if the federal government was routinely reporting this,” he said.

In March, nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children were taken into government custody at the Mexican border – the highest number ever. Caring for all those children, even temporarily, has become very difficult for the federal government.

About two-thirds of those children are boys, most are between 15 and 17, and a majority come from Guatemala and El Salvador, said Meredith Linsky, director of the ABA Commission on Immigration. About 90% are eventually reunified with parents or other close relatives in the United States, Linsky said.

Because so many unaccompanied children have crossed the border and there is a backlog, it is hard for parents in the U.S. to find their migrant children in government custody, said Carly Salazar, legal director of the ABA South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, or ProBAR. Lately, Salazar said, ProBAR has been getting frantic calls from desperate mothers and fathers looking for their children. One mother went door to door to every Border Patrol facility in the Rio Grande Valley to find her child, she said.

Significantly, Salazar said, “we have not seen a trend where children are actively being separated from parents” by government agents.

Even so, thousands of unaccompanied children are being held temporarily in government facilities that were never intended for children, said Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, a Dallas immigration attorney. One emergency facility in Dallas, she said, is a huge room the size of a football field, where children are kept in pods of 50 to 80 children each.

Saenz-Rodriguez volunteers at the facility and said workers there are “very gentle, compassionate people.” Although the facility is not ideal, she added, it is a place where many immigrant children can, for the first time in weeks, take a shower, wear clean clothes and sleep on cots.

“At the end of day,” Saenz-Rodriguez said, “we have to remember that these are kids. They have absolutely no idea what the law says. They’re not even thinking in that realm. They’re thinking, ‘What is going to happen to me?’”

While the goal is to release the children to relatives or sponsors as quickly as possible, the government must take the time to do proper background checks on those relatives and sponsors, Greenberg said. If the government cuts some questions or verifications, he said, it might speed up the process and remove some children from government custody more quickly, but it might also increase the risk for children of being placed in dangerous homes.

Panelists urged lawyers who want to volunteer for immigration cases to check online sources such as ABA Pro Bono Matters for Children Facing Deportation, which offers cases from 13 immigration organizations across the country.

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