CILA expands opportunities to aid immigrant children

Oct. 5, 2020

The stories are heartbreaking: A 17-year-old girl groomed for sex trafficking by her aunt. Guatemalan girls abused by their father and rejected by their mother. A boy whose brother was murdered and he himself targeted by gangs because of his imprisoned father.

These children, and many more, need legal help. Their cases are featured on a website called Pro Bono Matters for Children Facing Deportation, an online portal that matches volunteer lawyers with immigrant children across the country.

The website was launched one year ago by the ABA Children’s Immigration Law Academy, better known as CILA (pronounced SEE-la). When it began, the portal offered pro bono opportunities from three organizations. Since then, it has now expanded to offer pro bono cases from 15 nonprofit offices across the country. On a recent day, for example, there were children needing help in California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas.

“In an ideal system, all minors in immigration proceedings would have appointed counsel at government expense,” ABA President Patricia Lee Refo said. “Sadly, that is not the case, so half of all children facing deportation stand in court alone. They need our help.”

Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the Houston-based CILA was founded on Sept. 1, 2015, one year after the initial surge of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border. Then — as now — there weren’t enough pro bono lawyers to help every child. Those lawyers who did volunteer found a lack of training and support for their efforts.

CILA partly closed that gap. Today, the academy’s six employees provide in-person training (after the pandemic subsides), online webinars and technical assistance for lawyers handling children’s cases. They operate three listservs and five working groups to help immigration lawyers exchange information, plus a monthly newsletter to help attorneys stay on top of changes in immigration law and procedures. To date, the academy has trained and provided technical assistance to more than 1,700 lawyers and legal staffers nationwide.

“The ABA Commission on Immigration is extremely proud of what CILA has accomplished over the last five years,” said Commission Director Meredith Linsky. “CILA’s small but dedicated staff has developed highly relevant training sessions, expert technical assistance and collaborative working groups. The immigration field has become much more challenging in recent years, but CILA offers the tools that attorneys need to push back and demand due process and justice.”

A recent case shows the power of CILA’s legal reach.

Last year, a 15-year-old boy and his father arrived in Mexico after fleeing violence in Nicaragua. Upon asking for asylum at the border, they were required to participate in the Migrant Protection Protocols and wait in Mexico for their court hearings. For months, the boy and father lived in a squalid tent camp for asylum seekers in Matamoros, a dangerous border town across the river from Brownsville, Texas. One day, the father set out for food and never returned.

Left to fend for himself, the teen tried to enter the U.S. alone and was placed in a government shelter while his asylum case was pending. The boy did not have a lawyer and, ultimately, an immigration judge said no to his asylum claim. The boy was about to be sent back to Nicaragua when the ABA stepped in.

A lawyer with the ABA South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, known as ProBAR, received the case with days to spare. With legal research help from CILA, the lawyer filed an appeal — and won. Today, the boy is living with a relative in California, awaiting a judge’s decision on his permanent status.

It’s a sad fact that most children without lawyers fail in immigration proceedings. Numbers tell the story:

  • As of Aug. 30, more than 660,000 children faced deportation.
  • 52% of them had no lawyer.
  • Of those unrepresented children whose cases have been decided, 77% resulted in removal orders.
  • 84% of the children who were granted relief had lawyers.

Today, CILA helps children and the lawyers who represent them in many ways. Its most popular course is a three-day annual training session in collaboration with the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. The faculty includes former immigration judges, current practitioners and academics.

In August, CILA published a 101-page manual on how to work with children and youth in immigration cases. It includes tips on research, interviewing children, working with interpreters, ethical considerations, common forms of relief and introductions to immigration courts, the asylum office and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The CILA website includes upcoming live training events and 26 recorded webinars. The academy is funded by the Vera Institute of Justice, the Simmons Foundation and the Houston Endowment, among others.

To find cases in your state, click here.

For a list of CILA webinars, click here.

To donate to CILA, click here.