The news of unaccompanied minors crossing our border from Central America has slowed in the last month, but these children are still here. Every week, close to 100 children are being seen by immigration judges in Dallas immigration Court to plead their case for immigration relief. Last month, administration of President Obama directed immigration courts to expedite hearings for unaccompanied minors, asking judges to schedule first hearings for children within 21 days of their arrival, called “rocket dockets”. Many children are given less than 30 days until their second hearing where they must come with an attorney, have a completed application for relief in English, or be deported.
This system makes it almost impossible for children to find attorneys willing to help, and very difficult for attorneys who care to find the time and training to offer their services. Giving children less than a month to find an attorney and prepare their case for immigration relief is unrealistic and no doubt leads to incomplete or inaccurate applications for relief submitted to the court. Immigration law is complex and most immigrants, especially children, need an attorney to guide them through the process. Kids need more time. This pace also interferes with HRI’s ability to properly assign a case to a volunteer lawyer, so in order to help more kids, our staff attorneys take on more cases “in-house.”
Help HRI ask President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Attorney General Eric Holder for more time for refugee children.
1. Send a letter to the White House or the Department of Justice demanding a stop to rocket dockets. Not sure what to say? You can download HRI’s letter here to use. You can also copy and paste the content into an email to the White House or Department of Justice.
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
2. Tweet out using the hashtag #stoprocketdockets to @BarackObama, @VP and @TheJusticeDept. You can simply re-tweet HRI’s tweet.
3. DONATE - HRI is doing our very best to link immigrant children with caring and trained attorneys to help them with their case for relief. Every week, HRI screens children for legal relief and tries to pair them with attorneys using our own network of pro bono volunteers, or through our partnership with the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association, American Immigration Lawyers Association – Texas, and private attorneys.
To continue this work, HRI needs the funds to hire a new attorney to help ensure that children with eligible relief will have the opportunity to be represented in court. You can help us help more children by investing in a new attorney or helping us continue to pay for attorneys who are already doing this work.
Human Rights Initiative has been closely following the changing situation of unaccompanied minors entering the United States. As a Dallas-based agency, we know that this is an issue which currently affects and will continue to affect our communities. We want to help clarify what exactly is happening and how HRI is responding to this immediate crises.
If you have any questions or would like to reach us for comment, please contact HRI’s Executive Director, Bill Holston, by phoneat 214.273.4333 or by email at BHolston[at]hrionline.org.
What you need to know about Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC)
1. When did this crisis of Unaccompanied Children from Central America begin?
The exodus of children from Central America is not a new phenomenon, but has been steadily increasing since a child migrant “surge” started in 2011. However, it has hit a crisis point this year.
2. Where are these children coming from?
According to the Migration Policy Institute:
“Ninety-eight percent of unaccompanied minors currently arriving at the border are from Honduras (28 percent), Mexico (25 percent), Guatemala (24 percent), and El Salvador (21 percent). This breakdown represents a significant shift: prior to 2012, more than 75 percent of UACs were from Mexico” (Migration Policy Institute, June 2014). So far this government fiscal year (Oct 2013 – Jun 15, 2014), 52,193 children have been apprehended (U.S. Customs and Border Protection, June 2014).
Human Rights Initiative has been representing UACs for over ten years. We’ve seen a dramatic increase in need for our services over the last two years and in particular the last two months.
3. Why are these children coming to the United States?
The answer is complex. Each child has his or her own unique circumstances, but there appear to be several factors that are contributing to the recent influx of children.
According to the Migration Policy Institute:
“In reality, there is no single cause. Instead, a confluence of different pull and push factors has contributed to the upsurge. Recent U.S. policies toward unaccompanied children, faltering economies and rising crime and gang activity in Central American countries, the desire for family reunification, and changing operations of smuggling networks have all converged.”
However, according to the Children on the Run Report from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees:
“Forty-eight percent of the  displaced children interviewed for this study shared experiences of how they had been personally affected by the augmented violence in the region by organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors.”
This is consistent with the stories we, at Human Rights Initiative, hear from the children we represent.
According to the Administration for Children and Family Services, about 85% of children served in their shelters are reunified with their families.
4. How has the ‘surge’ affected Human Rights Initiative?
We are receiving an increase of calls for in-person legal screenings (or intake appointments), which has caused delays in how soon we can see kids for their intakes. As far as we know, we have not seen or served children released from the facilities in Lackland Air Force Base or other newly opened “emergency” shelters. We have had a very steady increase of these cases, and currently have 44 pending matters for children clients.
5. How does Human Rights Initiative serve these kids?
We presently provide free legal services for a short term foster care facility in Fort Worth (managed by Catholic Charities of Fort Worth “CCFW”) with 16 beds. Children are there for no more than a couple of weeks, before reuniting with their families, who can be anywhere in the United States. The CCFW short-term shelter will increase to 30 beds by end of June. The children in this shelter are all under 12, and some have been as young as 5. We conduct legal screenings for these kids in which we ask questions and attempt to determine if they have any legal relief available. We give their sponsors free legal referrals for the area of the country where they are reunifying, and when possible, we send a direct referral to other agencies urging them to take a child’s case if it appears the child is eligible for legal relief. We also provide the children’s relatives with an informational packet about the legal rights and possible relief for the children. We also provide Know Your Rights presentations in which we explain the immigration court process to the children.
Additionally, Human Rights Initiative serves children in CCFW’s long term foster care shelter. These children could not be reunited with a parent or guardian in the United States. We serve 8 beds and all of these children have a full legal case. The majority are eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).
Human Rights Initiative also represents children in removal proceedings that were held in other shelters throughout the country. If these children have been victims of human rights abuses, are eligible for relief, and their caretakers fall below 125% of the Federal Poverty Guideline, we can represent them free of charge. The majority of HRI’s children clients are eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. We provide representation in-house and with an extensive pro bono network in the North Texas area.
Human Rights Initiative also represents children who are not in proceedings in Immigration Court for legal cases and meet the same eligibility criteria as stated above.
6. What services are offered to children in shelters?
Human Rights Initiative of North Texas does not provide shelter services for UAC, but we do work closely with the local Ft. Worth shelter to provide legal support. According to the Administration on Children and Families:
Within HHS, the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Administration on Children and Families is responsible for providing care to children referred by immigration authorities. Consistent with federal law, ORR/DUCS places children in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child, taking into account potential flight risk and danger to self and others. The majority of the youth are cared for through a network of state-licensed ORR-funded care providers that provide:
- Classroom education
- Mental and medical health services
- Case management
- Socialization and recreation
- Family reunification services that facilitate safe and timely release to family members or other sponsors that can care for them. ORR conducts home studies prior to release if safety is in question, and fund follow-up services for at-risk children after their release.
ORR’s Division of Children’s Services also assumes the following responsibilities:
- Overseeing the infrastructure and personnel of care provider facilities.
- Conducting on-site monitoring visits of care provider facilities and ensuring compliance with DCS national care standards.
- Collecting, analyzing and reporting statistical information on children in the program.
- Providing training to federal, state and local officials who have substantive contact with unaccompanied, undocumented children.
- Developing procedures for age determinations and conducting these determinations along with the Department of Homeland Security.
- Cooperating with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review to ensure that sponsors of the children receive legal orientation presentations.
- Ensuring access to legal representation or counsel for all undocumented, unaccompanied children in custody.
- Granting specific consent for state court jurisdiction over children.
7. Are all children who are apprehended at the border taken into custody?
No, government statistics show that over 12,000 unaccompanied minors are from Mexico, and most of them are returned immediately.
8. Are these children given permission to stay in the United States?
Not necessarily. All of the children, no matter what age, are given a “Notice to Appear” in Immigration Court. Some smugglers and others are calling this a “permiso,” but despite this term, it is not a permission to stay in the United States. A Notice to Appear is a court order to appear in front of a judge in Immigration Court and is the first step in deportation proceedings. Both the children and the sponsors are told how they can check and see if and when they have a court hearing. If the child does not appear at the hearing and there is no good cause, then an in absentia order of removal will be issued.
9. What sort of legal relief are these children entitled to?
There are no reliable statistics on how many of these children might be entitled to legal relief to stay. A recent report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that about 60 percent of children coming from Central America might be eligible for some kind of humanitarian protection. A Vera Institute of Justice report from 2012 identified 40 percent of immigrant children admitted to an ORR shelter as eligible for some sort of legal protection under U.S. immigration law.
Possible relief for UAC includes:
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status if the child was abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents. In 1990, Congress created Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJS) status. In 2008, the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act made changes to the eligibility requirements for SIJ status and streamlined certain SIJ procedures.
Asylum, if the child is a victim of persecution and can prove the persecution was because of one of the five protected grounds: Race, Religion, Nationality, Political Opinion or Social Group. Social group can sometimes include victims of domestic violence but does not usually include gang related violence. For children who were victims of gang violence, it is unlikely they will be granted asylum, especially in Texas.
T-Visa, if a victim of international human trafficking that has been reported.
Family based immigration, if the child has an immediate relative who is a United States Citizen.
CHILD MIGRANTS CURRENTLY ENTERING THE U.S. ARE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR DEFERRED ACTION (DACA)
because they entered the United States too recently.
10. How long are the children supposed to be held by US Border Patrol?
According to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which set guidelines for managing the care of unaccompanied children entering the United States:
TRANSFERS OF UNACCOMPANIED ALIEN CHILDREN- Except in the case of exceptional circumstances, any department or agency of the Federal Government that has an unaccompanied alien child in custody shall transfer the custody of such child to the Secretary of Health and Human Services not later than 72 hours after determining that such child is an unaccompanied alien child. (Section 235 (b)(3))
Under this law, Border Patrol agents are required to take child migrants who aren’t from Mexico into custody, screen them, and transfer them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, who will then manage their custody and care. Currently, there is only one local ORR shelter in North Texas – Catholic Charties Ft. Worth.
11. Is our current system adequate?
According to Wendy Young of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an advocacy organization for unaccompanied immigrant children, the current system Congress put in place “was designed for about 6,000 to 8,000 kids a year — not the numbers we’re seeing now.”
12. What should our government do?
In late May 2014, the Federal government began to respond to this emerging crisis. They are currently in the process of doing many necessary things:
- Quickly opening emergency shelters to house these children like the one at Lackland Air Force Base
- Providing food and medical care to children in ORR shelters
- Trying to deter people from entering – warning people of the dangers in making the trip and that they aren’t automatically eligible for relief even if they make it to the U.S. safely
- Most recently the White House announced new initiatives to help stem the tide of unaccompanied minors
If this trend continues, the government should possibly consider Temporary Protected Status for those fleeing gang violence. Temporary Protected Status is a temporary permission to remain in the United States in response to conditions in the country of origin of an Immigrant.
We are thankful to have many great interns that come through our doors at Human Rights Initiative. Many of them are inspired by their work here and go on to amazing careers in human rights. Andrew Damron was a gifted intern with us. He is now an attorney working with asylum seekers in Thailand. He sent us this very thoughtful view of the difficulties of asylum seekers as they try to obtain refugee status.
- Bill Holston, Executive Director
The Situation of Urban Refugees in Bangkok
By Andrew Damron, Asylum Lawyer at Asylum Access Thailand
First, I want to thank the HRI team for inviting me back to the blog. It’s wonderful to be back. For those who do not know, I am a proud HRI intern alumnus, where I worked under the Asylum Program and the Women and Children Program. Since interning with HRI, I graduated from Hofstra Law School and I am currently an asylum lawyer in Bangkok, Thailand with another great organization called Asylum Access Thailand. I would like to take this opportunity to talk about my work, and to share some perspective on the types of problems we are facing on the ground in the urban refugee context here in Thailand.
The current situation for urban refugees in Bangkok, Thailand is dismal. The difficult situation is compounded for urban refugees in Bangkok partly because the Kingdom of Thailand does not have any mechanisms in place to assist survivors of human rights abuses who have fled their home countries. To date, Thailand is not a member to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. That means that Thailand does not provide any immigration benefits for asylum seekers within its borders.
At Asylum Access, I provide direct legal services to refugees in the urban context (i.e
. refugees who come to Bangkok from outside of Thailand; we do not provide support to refugees in any of the Burmese/Thai border refugee camps). Most of our clients are Pakistanis and Palestinians (from Syria), however a large number of our other clients come from Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and surprisingly many come from various African countries. Since the Thai government does not support refugees in Thailand in any way, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has an agreement with Thailand to process all refugee claims within the Thai borders. I thus practice before the local offices of UNHCR in Bangkok. The ultimate goal is to have our clients recognized as refugees before UNHCR and then to have them resettled to some safe third country.
The situation is severe for urban refugees in Bangkok because UNHCR in Bangkok is overwhelmed beyond its capacity. For various reasons, including lack of space and staff, UNHCR is unable to process each applicant with haste. To highlight this, most asylum-seekers who apply for refugee status today will not receive their asylum interview until 2018. If granted refugee status, it will take at least another year to be resettled. That’s to say, people applying for refugee status today can expect to be in Bangkok for about five years before being resettled.
As mentioned above, Thailand does not have any internal mechanisms to assist the process for asylum-seekers in Thailand. When an individual is seeking asylum through UNHCR, their visa will likely expire before the applicant has their Refugee Status Determination (RSD) interview. As a result, many asylum seekers throughout Bangkok do not have proper immigration documentation and thus are vulnerable to arrest and placement in one of the Immigration Detention Centers throughout Thailand. The harshness of IDC on urban refugees is complicated in that families are broken up and rarely will have the opportunity to spend time with each other (as men are
divided from women in detention). Children are regularly placed in IDC. There are some new campaigns to educate the Thai population about placing children in immigration detention. However, nothing has been done on the part of the Thai government to remove the children from the detention centers.
Further, urban refugees do not have access to much financial or medical support. Without the right to work in Thailand, urban refugees rely on financial handouts from UNHCR, from religious organizations, and from other community-based organizations, however it’s never enough. Oftentimes urban refugees are forced to live in a small studio apartment with a dozen people. Some medical support is provided by the Bangkok Refugee Center and with some other help from UNHCR, however usually only life-threatening physical conditions receive priority.
In two short weeks, I will return to the United States with a new perspective on the role of an asylum attorney. I will continue working in asylum and refugee law, and I will always have Human Rights Initiative to thank for solidifying my passion to help some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.