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On any given day, more than 450 immigrant children are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Chicago area. These children are detained as “unaccompanied immigrant children” because they did not have parents or legal guardians with them when they were apprehended by immigration and placed into deportation proceedings in immigration court.

Although they enter alone and are minors, in many regards the American immigration system treats them like adults. They are not appointed lawyers, but instead must obtain legal counsel on their own or navigate the complicated laws alone. If they fail to go to a scheduled court hearing, they are ordered deported.

To help policymakers better understand this who these children are, the National Immigrant Justice Center today released a new policy brief for which we compiled information from hundreds of recent intake interviews with unaccompanied children held in government custody in the Chicago area. This survey analyzed the driving forces behind the children’s migration, the treatment the children received upon arrival, and the challenges they encountered in the U.S. immigration system. The survey illuminated the serious obstacles children face during their journeys, and after they arrive as they struggle to find legal counsel and understand their rights in the face of one of America's most complex legal systems. The policy brief calls on the U.S. government to act to ensure that the immigration system protects children’s due process and human rights. Click here to download the policy brief.

Who they are

Unaccompanied immigrant children come to the United States to reunite with family, to study, or with aspirations to work. They come out of fear, love, and sometimes extreme poverty. Many do not realize that they have broken a law by entering the country. Three times each week, the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Immigrant Children’s Protection Project meets with unaccompanied immigrant children detained at Chicago’s eight ORR centers. We explain to these children what their rights and responsibilities will be during their immigration proceedings and screen them to see if they are eligible for any immigration relief. About 44 percent of the children we meet qualify for some form of relief that would allow them to stay in the United States legally, including asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a protection available for children who have been abandoned, abused or neglected by their parent(s) and for whom it is not in their best interests to return to their home countries. Additional children present strong cases for prosecutorial discretion.

Most of the detained children we meet only stay in the Chicago area for a few days or weeks before they reunite with parents or caretakers in other parts of the country.  Once the children are released from detention, we must try to refer those we believe are eligible for legal relief to lawyers closer to where they end up.

The majority of children are released to families who cannot afford private legal counsel. A common question from children is “how much do lawyers cost?” It’s amazing to see how acutely aware these kids are of poverty, and how responsible they feel to their families. For many, finding a low-cost or pro bono legal aid organization is their only option, but these resources are often scarce.

Finding lawyers

Many children reunite with families in rural areas where access to legal services is very limited. Of the children who encounter NIJC in Chicago and then move on to northern states, about 20 percent move to rural areas; of those who move south, about 40 percent go to rural communities. Some states have only one or two immigration attorneys or immigration legal service organizations. Often, children’s families must drive several hours to consult with attorneys. It can take years to complete some immigration cases and many providers hesitate to take cases from children who live far away because they do not believe that families will be willing to make such long drives to their offices while working on their cases.

In contrast, we also run into difficulties making referrals in some larger cities. While there may be more legal options in these cities, legal service providers often already have more cases than they have capacity to handle. Furthermore, children who do not speak Spanish or English are at a distinct disadvantage: they usually have to provide their own interpreters to communicate with legal service providers.

Even with our knowledge of the immigration system, our fluency in English and our internet access, we still struggle to find legal counsel for the unaccompanied immigrant children we meet. Imagine the struggle unaccompanied children face searching for legal counsel on their own. Very few speak English. Many have limited education and literacy and have a hard time understanding unfamiliar concepts that can seem very basic to us—such as a court or a judge. How can they be expected to find their own legal counsel?

Ways to improve the system

The issue of access to legal counsel is important for all immigrants, but children are especially vulnerable when in removal proceedings. They are not capable on their own of presenting the necessary elements to gain legal status in the United States. Moreover, it is not efficient for the immigration court system to have a child appear without an attorney. When a child appears in court without counsel, it makes the hearing more complicated and takes longer. From what we have seen, the immigration judges strongly prefer to have the children in their courtrooms appear with attorneys rather than on their own.

Deporting children without providing them lawyers to argue their cases defies basic human rights principles. The government should create a pilot program to provide appointed counsel to unaccompanied immigrant children and should also expand the “Legal Orientation Programs for Custodians”—educational programs for the caretakers of unaccompanied immigrant children—so that they can understand the rights and responsibilities of the children after their release from government custody. Meaningful access to legal counsel is the only way to give immigrant children a fair chance at the justice too many Americans take for granted.

Erin Carpenter and Monica McCarthy are paralegals in the Immigrant Children Protection Project at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center.