Last summer, the U.S. media exploded with the news that tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children were arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. The media classified this influx as everything from a “flood” to an “invasion” to, finally (quoting President Obama), a “humanitarian crisis.” What everyone agreed upon, however, was that the “crisis” was—in terms of simple numbers—unprecedented, and that something had to be done.
In 2009, the total number of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (together known as the “Northern Triangle”) arriving at the U.S. border was about 3,000. The number began to spike in 2012 when about 10,000 children were apprehended at the border. Then, in 2014, the number rose steeply to nearly 52,000 children— a 500% increase—with 2015 numbers again on track to be dramatically high.
The reality motivating the increase emerged as these children were processed in shelters and their stories were heard: brutal abuse, violence, and poverty had driven them from their homes.
The Most Dangerous Gangs in the World
In addition to being among the poorest countries in Latin America, with 30% (Honduras), 26% (Guatemala) and 17% (El Salvador) of their populations surviving on less than $2 a day, Northern Triangle countries also have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Honduras, with a murder rate in 2014 of 90.4/100,000 people, tops the list. By comparison, Detroit had a murder rate of 54.6/100,000 people in 2013—a number that is ten times the national average. The rates of murders of women and youth are even higher than the average murder rate in high gang activity areas in the Northern Triangle.
In the past decade, violence has dramatically increased in the Northern Triangle, due in large part to gangs that have increased in size, power, and violence. Gangs reign by fear, and those in opposition are beaten, murdered, or “disappeared.” They make money by engaging in extortion, illegal drug trade, human trafficking, and more. Police in the Northern Triangle are often ineffective in stopping them and, in many cases, have been known to work alongside the gangs or accept bribes in exchange for willfully turning a blind eye to gang activity. Even when there is no corruption, gangs often threaten the lives of police and their families.
The Most Vulnerable Targets
Children can be especially vulnerable to gangs for many reasons, including their age, accessibility, gender, and lack of an adequate caretaker. Boys in their early teens are particularly susceptible to gang recruitment; any who attempt to resist are threatened or killed simply for refusing to join. For example, “Edgar” is a 16-year-old Honduran boy who now lives in North Carolina. When Edgar was 10 his father died, and Edgar quit school to work and support his family. At 15 gangs began recruiting him. When he resisted, they beat him and gave him the choice to leave his home or be killed. Edgar chose to leave and attempt the journey to the U.S.
But the danger Edgar faced did not end when he escaped the gangs’ threats. The journey to the U.S. is incredibly dangerous. Migrants have to cross several countries and are particularly exposed to robbery, rape, kidnapping, and inadequate food and water. Edgar was kidnapped in Mexico and held for a $3,000 ransom for 10 days, starved, and beaten until a family friend paid the ransom. Now, Edgar lives in North Carolina with a cousin and is applying for asylum to gain status and remain in this country lawfully.
Edgar’s story is not unique. It is a story shared by many children arriving in the U.S. Young girls from the Northern Triangle also face issues with gangs.
“Maria” is 15 and from El Salvador. Gang members told her she was starting to “look ready,” and she was going to be theirs. One gang member in particular stalked her and said she was “his.” Maria knew other girls who had resisted in the past and were violently raped or beaten; she chose to flee to the U.S. where her mother had fled years before after her father was murdered by a gang.
For Edgar, Maria, and so many others, the only option to stay alive without becoming involved with gangs is to flee to the U.S.
Welcome to America
While resistance to gangs may be the driving reason for fleeing, many children choose to leave because of a complex combination of issues they face in their home country. Often a child who is targeted by gangs also lives in poverty, and many face other issues, like abandonment and abuse. Children fled their home countries in droves last summer and after undertaking a harrowing journey, they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border to an existing structure that was woefully unprepared to handle them.
Upon arrival, the children were—and continue to be—sent to shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Because they did not cross the border with a parent or guardian, they were labeled as Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) and forced to remain in ORR custody until a family member was located and willing to take custody. Once a family member volunteered to care for the child, the child would be sent to that person to await the immigration court process. More than 2,000 children arrived in North Carolina last year. These children were then expected to go to immigration court, where a process they did not understand in a language they did not speak was set in motion to return them to the country from which they had fled.
Addressing the Need
Children arriving in North and South Carolina were luckier than most. Charlotte-area nonprofit and NC IOLTA grantee Legal Services of Southern Piedmont (LSSP) already had a program in place at the Charlotte Immigration Court, which serves both states, to help orient people to the court process. Through this project, a bilingual LSSP employee educates and reassures first-time defendants by explaining what is going to happen in court, answering questions, and helping people navigate the court by filling out basic forms. As part of the project, local private attorneys volunteer their time to provide basic screenings for relief and information to people who are present in court for the first time.
While programs like this project provide basic legal orientation and information, these children still have no legal right to court-appointed counsel. They are expected to hire an attorney or represent themselves if they seek to pursue legal remedies. Current statistics show that nine out of ten children without representation are deported, while almost half of children with representation find relief. Without adequate representation, children who may have had a viable form of relief could be deported without the chance to fairly defend their case. LSSP was positioned and committed to change that.
In October 2014, with the help of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA)’s North and South Carolina chapter, LSSP created a project pairing pro bono attorneys with children who are eligible for a particular type of relief called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) that provides permanent residency to certain children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents. To date, pro bono representation has been provided to more than 140 children who otherwise may not have been able to afford or access representation to help them remain in the U.S.
In addition to the pro bono project, LSSP—with the continued help of NC IOLTA and other local funders—expanded its existing immigration legal assistance with three new Equal Justice Works justice AmeriCorps (jAC) attorneys to represent unaccompanied minors under the age of 16 in North Carolina.
A Community Effort
Thanks to what is now referred to broadly as LSSP’s Safe Child Immigrant Project (SCIP), hundreds of children in North Carolina have received legal orientation and information they could not otherwise have accessed. Furthermore, more than 200 children have received legal representation and assistance navigating the incredibly complicated U.S. immigration system.
Essential to LSSP’s ability to respond to and create these programs is North Carolina’s legal community, which saw these children’s urgent need for legal help and responded. SCIP would not be possible without the committed work of the pro bono attorneys who take on these worthwhile cases and committed funders, who help LSSP support staff attorneys provide information and representation to children, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. Together, these passionate individuals and organizations have put their commitment to protecting the community’s most vulnerable into action by upholding justice for children in need.