The Miami Herald’s June 27th story, An inside look at what happens to children after crossing the U.S. border, offers a rare glimpse inside the daily lives of unaccompanied Central American children in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody. The temporary, 800-bed Homestead facility is in addition to two local permanent shelters in South Florida.
For almost two decades AI Justice has been privileged to provide free legal services to children who arrive alone, in search of safety and a better life. Now we’re working overtime to help the children in Homestead. They are fleeing murderous gangs and drug cartels in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which rank among the most dangerous countries in the world.
“Gangs recruit like a company searching for more employees in order to distribute more product,” one young boy said. Girls have been raped and threatened with death for refusing to be gang members’ “girlfriends.” Children fear going to school because gangs lurk nearby to recruit them.
Even after winning their deportation cases, children tell us they still fear that the gangs will find them here and kill them. These young immigrants only undertake the perilous journey because they lack protection at home. A 2009 Catholic Relief Services report found that more than 70 percent of Central American children reported being robbed, tortured, intimidated or abused physically or sexually during their journey. “When I rested, I could no longer get up. My whole body had large thorns, I almost died. When I arrived here I weighed 88 pounds, I used to weigh 103 pounds,” Maria, an AI Justice client, recounted.
In July 2014, DHS concluded that children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador “probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home.” A 2014 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that almost 60 percent of unaccompanied children they surveyed had potential claims for relief from deportation.
Upon arrival at our border, children are entitled to due process and their day in court. But the cards are stacked against them. Rather than finding the protection they seek, children encounter a legal system that is complex, bewildering and frightening. They desperately need an attorney to navigate the convoluted worlds of immigration courts, state juvenile and family courts and the asylum office.
They are not entitled to a free lawyer even though they’re up against experienced DHS lawyers who argue for their deportation. And the children’s cases are now fast-tracked — “rocket docket” — giving them little time to prepare.
Nine out of 10 children without attorneys are ordered deported. Those with attorneys are five times more likely to be granted protection, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Hanging in the balance is whether a child will have a shot at the American Dream or be sent home to face violence, persecution or death.
On Feb. 11, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid introduced the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016, which would require the federal government to appoint lawyers for unaccompanied kids awaiting deportation hearings. And earlier this month a federal judge granted class-action status in a lawsuit challenging our government’s failure to provide lawyers to children facing deportation.
Sadly, since the recent influx of unaccompanied children reaching our shores in search of protection, support for comprehensive immigration reform is waning, and anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise. The solution, however, shouldn’t be deporting children without sufficient due process and giving Mexico millions of dollars to aggressively prevent children from reaching our border, which this administration began doing following the 2014 surge, which makes their journey even more perilous.
In considering the plight of innocent children arriving today I am reminded of the Pedro Pan children, many of whom, as adults, have helped make Miami the dynamic city it is today. Many of the courageous children now fleeing, if given a fighting chance, would also make us proud.
Cheryl Little is the executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, a Miami organization that provides free legal services to immigrant children.