In the past few years, the number of undocumented children illegally crossing the border into the United States has increased considerably, according to a recent article in the New York Times. One in 13 of those caught crossing the border into the United States last year were under 18 years old and 17 percent were under 13 years old. Another New York Times article tells us that the number of unaccompanied minors facing deportation proceedings reached 11,000 in 2012 — twice as much as in the previous year.
The reasons why these children are fleeing their own countries to come to the United States are varied. The Jesuit Social Research Institute reports that many are fleeing domestic violence, gang violence and forced recruitment, abusive child labor practices, human trafficking, rape, forced prostitution or armed conflict in their home countries. Many are also trying to reunite with family members who are already living in the United States.
Once an undocumented child has been caught and detained by Border Patrol, the law states that he/she should be sent to the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, but the New York Times reports that, last year, children were held at Border Patrol facilities for up to two weeks in cells that they shared with many other children, sometimes not even having enough space to lay down or sleep. Children complained of a lack of food and water, and the cells often had no windows, showers or recreation space. Once released to Health and Human Services, children are reunited with their families or held in detention centers for children until their trial.
The New York Times explains that, for these children, there are no public defenders. While every U.S. citizen is afforded an attorney, undocumented migrants are not. The situation is even dier considering that, in these cases, the detainees are children without the capacity to neither comprehend nor maneuver their way through the complex U.S. legal system. Few are able to obtain a pro bono lawyer and even fewer can hire private lawyers. Thus, about 50 percent go to court alone, with some as young as two years old. Most of these children are terrified and have very little understanding of what is happening to them. Many have already survived and/or witnessed unspeakable violence and hardships, both in their home countries and in their journey to the United States. In addition to that, they are in a foreign country, alone and typically unable to speak the language. They are required to represent themselves when they don’t have the language skills, the support, the maturity or the understanding to be able to manage the U.S. judicial system effectively. Another New York Times article explains that 40 percent of these children would qualify for exemption from deportation, but without legal representation, they have little to no chance of qualifying. Exemptions exist for children who have been the victims of severe abuse, neglect or human trafficking.
Although improvements are being made to the immigration laws and practices, services for undocumented children have been seriously strained over the past year with the steady increase of unaccompanied minors being detained at the border. Advocates are calling for further changes in order to help these children obtain the representation they deserve and need. An organization called Kids in Need of Defense works to help connect pro bono lawyers and other volunteers to children in need of representation, but their scope is still limited. They need more lawyers to volunteer and more firms that are willing to count their workers’ pro bono hours. But even lawyers being willing to work pro bono is only a temporary solution. All undocumented children need to have access to public defenders who specialize in immigration law. This needs to be a part of comprehensive immigration reform.
This article was written by Delegation Leader Gabriela D. Acosta, the community manager for the USC School of Social Work masters in counseling program.She is passionate about social justice, community organizing and leadership development. Connect with her on Twitter @Gabyacosta101