In an attempt to fill one of the most glaring gaps in the ongoing crisis with unaccompanied minors at the border, the federal government and some local funding sources have begun to spend money on legal assistance for unaccompanied minors. Access to legal counsel remains one of the highest priority issues when it comes to serving Central American children crossing dangerous Southern borders without supervision.
As The Imprint reported earlier this year, legal counsel was identified by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigration and Refugees as one of the most immediate needs for unaccompanied minors. Young people crossing the border from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are often fleeing gang violence, human trafficking and severe economic deprivation.
According to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, almost half of children with attorneys were allowed to remain in the country, while only 10 percent of those without representation were allowed to stay.
The Obama administration’s first step to boost counsel availability was the creation of Justice AmeriCorps, a partnership between the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Executive Office for Immigration Review at the Department of Justice.
The project aims to enroll approximately 100 lawyers and paralegals as members to provide legal services to vulnerable migrant youth. In exchange for their service, members will receive a stipend of $24,200 and educational award of $5,700.
The program will release about $2 million in grants to enroll 100 lawyers and paralegals. The money will be distributed to nonprofit organizations in 29 cities with large immigrant populations. The grantees would then be responsible for recruitment, enrollment and training of legal staff.
The partnership was announced in June, but awardees have not yet been named. In September, the Justice Department’s Chief Immigration Judge, Brian O’Leary, advised immigration judges around the country that it was appropriate to issue continuances in order for unaccompanied minors to retain counsel.
The administration has since announced a new $9 million initiative to provide taxpayer-funded attorneys to unaccompanied minors. The feds will split the award between two organizations: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Virginia-based U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
The organizations will each receive a little more than half of $4.2 million in grants for this fiscal year. An additional $4.8 million will be split for the legal program for fiscal year 2015.
The organizations are directed to concentrate legal services in the following cities: Los Angeles, Miami, Memphis, New Orleans, Phoenix, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington.
New York City became the second city (after San Francisco) to commit public funds to provide Central American youth fleeing their native countries with legal counsel.
The New York City Council’s budget includes $1 million for legal services in fiscal year 2015. To leverage the fund, the council looked to the private sector to contribute.
The New York-based Robinhood Foundation was already engaged in services throughout the city for immigrants and refugees. They launched the Immigrant Justice Corps in January 2014, which provides grants to organizations who provide legal services to immigrant populations. The Robinhood Foundation allocated $550,000 to the unaccompanied minors’ fund, while New York Community Trust (NYCT) committed $340,000.
The New York immigration court docket swelled as the number of unaccompanied minors entering the country increased. It now holds about 30 deportation hearings per day related to unaccompanied minors, up from an average of less than four per day.
This past August, under a Justice Department mandate, the court launched a surge docket (informally known as the “rocket docket”) focused solely on expediting the legal proceedings for youth who cross the U.S. border alone.
Immigration proceedings are considered a civil matter, not criminal, and minors are not legally entitled to a public defender.
According to Robinhood Managing Director Eric Weingartner, 2,500 unaccompanied migrant youth will come to New York City and there will be “over 1,000 kids needing access to counsel, with no counsel in sight.”
The city will make grants to the following organizations through the fund to provide legal services:
- The Legal Aid Society and The Door will each accept cases for direct representation and also co‐counsel cases with pro bono lawyers from select New York City law firms.
- Catholic Charities Community Services will provide direct representation through staff attorneys and law student interns under strict staff supervision.
- The Safe Passage Project will place cases pro bono with alumni of New York Law School as well as pro bono associates from New York‐area law firms.
- Make the Road NY will accept cases for direct representation and accept referrals from the Juvenile and Surge dockets.
- Central American Legal Assistance, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and Atlas: DIY (Developing Immigrant Youth) will accept referrals from the Juvenile and Surge dockets for direct representation.
The City Council’s Unaccompanied Minor Initiative follows Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement in September that representatives from city agencies would be stationed at immigration court. Staff from the Department of Education and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will help child migrants enroll in school and health services.
In August, San Francisco announced a $100,000 grant to the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to provide counsel to unaccompanied youths. In September, a bill pushed and signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) funneled $3 million to nonprofits for legal services.
Judith Fenlon is the editor of the The Imprint’s Money and Business Section.