A growing number of accompanied minor children entering the United States need lawyers to help them navigate the immigration court system. Lisa Koop, associate director for legal services for the National Immigrant Justice Center, recently visited Notre Dame Law School and spoke with students to discuss the area of practice. Koop is also an adjunct professor of law at NDLS and leads the National Immigrant Justice Center Externship.
“Roughly just one-in-three unaccompanied children entering the U.S. are represented by an attorney by the time they make their way to the immigration court system,” Koop said. “It is highly unlikely that an unrepresented child will prevail in immigration court, even if he or she has a bona fide claim for protection.”
Children with lawyers have a 73 percent success rate in immigration court, compared to only 15 percent for unrepresented children, a Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse report found.
Unaccompanied minors face an aggressive removal process and experienced government attorneys arguing for their deportation if they do not have a legal advocate working with them, Koop said.
Lawyers who understand the challenges their clients face make better advocates, Koop said.
She said, each month, thousands of children from Central America risk being kidnapped, trafficked, raped, or killed as they make their way to the United States, to seek refuge from gangs and poverty,
Maria Blumenfeld, a lawyer also working with NIJC, said the clients she works with face uncertain futures in their countries of origin.
“My youngest client was four years old,” Blumenfeld said. “These children aren’t coming to the U.S. looking for a job or an opportunity. They’re coming as a means for survival.”
The two lawyers explained that the most common forms of relief for unaccompanied minors are asylum and Special-Immigrant Juvenile Status — both of which can be complicated, Koop said.
A child must be able to prove they are unable to return to their home country because they have been persecuted there in the past or have a well-founded fear that they will be persecuted if they go back to be granted asylum, Koop said. They also have to show that the reason they have been, or will be, persecuted is connected to one of five things: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or your political opinion.
“The doors open when they’ve been granted asylum,” Koop said. “After one year they can apply for a green card and later on down the line their parents or certain family members can share in their asylum status.”
Family or juvenile court judges have to find that a child was abused, abandoned or neglected to obtain SIJ status, Koop said. The disadvantage of being granted SIJ status is that the child will never legally be permitted to file any immigrant petition for either parent to join them in the United States.
“If only one parent was abusive or neglectful, the child will still never be able to petition for the non-abusive parent to come here,” Koop said.
The number of unaccompanied minors appears to have decreased in the last two years, Blumenfeld said. She attributed the drop in numbers to more children being detained and deported in Mexico, before they could make it to the United States.
“It’s not that these children still aren’t trying to get here,” she said. “They are. Deporting them from Mexico isn’t a sustainable solution. I think everyone in the legal community should be aware of this topic so that together we can find real solutions.”
Notre Dame Law School offers the National Immigrant Justice Center Externship. Through the three-credit, semester-long program, students represent low-income immigration clients from northern Indiana under the supervision of an experienced National Immigrant Justice Center attorney.