Two years ago, President Obama made the decision to fast-track deportation cases. It has forced many unaccompanied child migrants — some as young as four — to face immigration court without an attorney.
New York City is unique, because a coalition of nonprofits called ICARE has been working together since then to provide legal services for free. But with the Department of Homeland Security doubling down on arrest and raids since early March, is ICARE a sufficient solution to the humanitarian crisis? Henriette Chacar reports.
CHACAR: On the 12th floor of the New York City Immigration Court lies the Pro Bono Room. There, you can find colored pencils, stickers and books — in Spanish and English — about frogs, sharks and visiting the zoo.
In most cases, it is also where unaccompanied children find an attorney to represent them in court for the first time.
So how does the conversation between them begin?
STAMPUR: I always like to ask what their favorite soccer team is. It’s really much easier to ask “do you like Barcelona or do you like Real Madrid?”
CHACAR: That’s Gui Stampur [Gee Stam-purr], the director of legal services at the Safe Passage Project, one of the organizations that makes up ICARE.
And after he breaks the ice, Stampur tries to understand what life was like for the child in their home country and why they came to the United States. He uses that information to match the child with an attorney and come up with a legal defense.
What organizations like Safe Passage also do is give “Know Your Rights” presentations, to help children better understand how the U.S. immigration system works. Allison Wilkinson, a staff attorney at The Door, another ICARE partner, says…
WILKINSON: Immigration court — it’s not the court you see on Law and Order. It’s a room with a judge’s bench and two tables before it, and then benches behind kind of a gate. However, it is a courtroom, with all the process of a courtroom, and it is very intimidating for any adult — and especially any child — to have to go sit before a judge.
CHACAR: Although ICARE is funded by the New York City Council, it also takes cases of children who come to court from as far north as Albany, and as far east as Nassau.
Statistics collected by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that since last year, a 90 percent increase was recorded in the number of unaccompanied children detained at the Southwest border alone. Many of them end up in New York.
But because other regions around the state don’t have sufficient legal aid programs, the number of children in need of representation is much larger than the number of attorneys available to help them.
This means that children either have to find an attorney on their own, or represent themselves. That not only compromises their right to due process, as Wilkinson from The Door argues…
WILKINSON: A seven year old is not going to be able to sit down and say “Well, your honor, today I’m pursuing asylum, and I’d like to plead to the NTA, and I’d admit allegations 1 through 4 but I have a problem with the charge that was applied. And I will be filing my application for asylum with the asylum office.” That’s never ever going to happen.
But on an emotional level, the imbalance of power is a harsh scene to digest.
STAMPUR: The fact that when they sit in the chair at immigration court, unrepresented, their feet don’t touch the ground. That’s something that sticks with you.
CHACAR: Stampur from Safe Passage also says that most ICARE organizations are already at capacity.
STAMPUR: That’s, you know, an understatement, to say that we’re overworked is probably more accurate.
CHACAR: At Safe Passage alone there are 10 full-time attorneys working on over 500 cases. The system is buckling under the pressure, even in well-prepared New York City. With violence worsening in Central America and the number of child migrants on the rise, the caseload is only expected to grow heavier.
Henriette Chacar, Columbia Radio News.