Liz Mendoza, right, with fellow volunteers.

Image: Courtesy CILA

Last February a group of eight attorneys traveled to Harlingen to meet with dozens of boys from Central America, all between 14 and 17 years old, who arrived by the busload seeking help.

The lawyers—volunteers from the Houston-based Children’s Immigration Law Academy—set up in the offices of the group they were assisting, ProBAR, a Harlingen-based pro bono asylum-representation nonprofit that suddenly had been tasked with meeting the legal-service needs of 4,000 unaccompanied migrant children.

Houston lawyer Liz Mendoza had gotten involved in the effort the month prior, after spotting a call for volunteers for CILA on a listserv she belonged to. The tent city in Tornillo, Texas [near El Paso] has closed and there has been an influx of children into other facilities around the country, the message read. Many of the recently arrived children are being sent to the converted Wal-Mart facility in Brownsville known as Casa Padre and other facilities in the Rio Grande Valley.

The attorneys were not permitted to enter the various Rio Grande Valley-area Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities where the children were being detained, hence the buses. As the boys arrived to the ProBAR offices, volunteers offered them fidget spinners. Aquí puedes jugar con esto, Mendoza told them. Here, you can play with this. Most laughed nervously, chuckling because it sounded like something an adult might say to a much younger child.

“But they all picked it up. They all used it,” says Liz Mendoza, “and it helped to build a little bit of rapport.”

Mendoza, who after 25 years as a Houston immigration lawyer is well-acquainted with serving clients who’ve undergone trauma, knew the spinners would be a good move. She was a total stranger, and she was about to ask delicate, personal questions of children who’d traveled thousands of miles, many fleeing gang violence in their home countries—El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala.

“Not that they were gang members,” she says. “But they were having problems with gangs, either facing extortion attempts, kidnapping attempts, murder attempts. Attempts to be forcefully recruited by the gangs. So they had fled.”

Now they were in the United States. They were in custody. They were in immigration court proceedings. “Without mom. Without dad. Without siblings,” says Mendoza. She knew that the boys faced a long road ahead as she did the initial work of screening them for potential asylum eligibility and juvenile-status claims. Later the Children’s Immigration Law Academy would connect them to other pro bono attorneys, who would represent them in court.

The American Bar Association launched the academy in 2015 as a direct response to a surge of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America crossing the border to flee violence and persecution in their home countries, the number of whom spiked to 68,541 in 2014. The flow has fluctuated since then, but the period between October 2018 and September 2019 saw a record 76,020 apprehended. 

CILA is a legal resource center that supports attorneys and legal staff who represent unaccompanied children in their immigration cases throughout Texas through training, technical assistance, and collaboration. This year the academy supported ProBAR by recruiting and coordinating volunteers to do legal screenings at the border. CILA also launched an online platform that connects potential pro bono attorneys with available cases posted by legal service providers. Mendoza was one of 71 lawyers who volunteered for CILA in the Rio Grande Valley from January to June of this year, screening 1,149 children.

As part of this work, the academy trains immigration lawyers on changes to complicated, ever-changing U.S. laws. “Over the last year,” explains Dalia Castillo-Granados, CILA’s executive director, “there have been a lot of changes with asylum, special-immigrant-juvenile status, with how children are processed, and even what’s going on at the border.”

As of August 2019, 62 percent of juveniles with a case pending in Texas Immigration Court had appeared alone in court. “The majority of kids in these legal proceedings do not have legal representation, and that really impacts the likelihood of being successful in their immigration cases,” says Mendoza. “It’s critically important work.”

Of the cases that were settled this year, only 329 of 59,751 unrepresented children received relief in some form. Of the 28,406 kids with representation, 1,529 did so. 

“Legal representation,” says Mendoza, “is key.”

Central American migrants crossing from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso.

That morning in Harlingen, Mendoza met with some boys who appeared to check the boxes for asylum or juvenile-status claims, and some who did not.

Many of the children from Guatemala had come for economic reasons—experts now believe that climate change and drought are destroying the agricultural sector there—but that didn’t qualify them to apply for asylum, which applies only to immigrants who fear government persecution in their home countries based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or belonging to a particular social group. Juvenile status, meanwhile, is granted to children abandoned, abused, or neglected by one or both parents. 

Guatemalans now make up over half of all migrant children crossing into America. One boy Mendoza spoke with, a 14-year-old from the country, had watched his father get murdered by a corrupt police officer who was working for a neighbor that wanted the family’s land, after which the neighbor swooped in and took it. A few months later the boy’s mother passed away, and he was left in charge of multiple siblings.

“He was facing threats himself by the same neighbor,” says Mendoza, “and now he was the oldest person in the family who was responsible for all the other kids, so he had to leave. And he was only 14—14 years old!”

The boy had been in an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter for less than a month as he waited for a family member already living in the States to take him in. As they spoke, Mendoza gave the boy a tissue, put her hand on his, and squeezed it. “I remember him kind of being a little hesitant to speak, and then he just got very emotional remembering his father and mother—he was now an orphan.”

Mendoza made a note on his paperwork indicating a potential asylum claim. Nevertheless, he had an uphill battle ahead.

There are numerous factors working against all unaccompanied migrant children. They face increased risk of violence and trafficking while making the dangerous journey to America. Once here they spend on average 50 days in a detention center—some of which have come under intense scrutiny for their inhumane conditions—before being placed with a close relative or family member to sponsor them. Meanwhile, thanks to the current administration’s punitive policies, there is now a fear among immigrant communities that taking in an unaccompanied minor could come with big risks, including deportation.

And that is just the beginning. The U.S. immigration court system is currently swamped with a backlog of millions of cases, and not enough judges or resources to handle them. Unaccompanied minors face potential years-long wait times for court dates.

Children who have been placed with families must adjust to new communities, schools, and living situations. Many of them, by the way, are right here in our area. “Harris County is the second-highest-receiving county in the nation for unaccompanied children,” says Castillo-Granados. “We can do a lot more to support them,” she adds, including advocating for increased social services, pushing for public funding for legal representation, and supporting local organizations already on the ground serving them. “You don’t have to be an attorney.”

If you are one, though, organizations like CILA need you.  

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