The expected immigration bill from the Senate gang of eight would require border enforcement to be 90 percent effective at stopping people from crossing into the U.S. before the nation’s undocumented immigrants can be issued green cards. The rising number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border make them relevant to the discussion, but protecting children in immigration courts and in some cases from Border Patrol abuse has received little notice in the debate so far.
In the same period that unauthorized border crossings dropped to a 40-year low, the number of children caught by Border Patrol has soared. In 2012, double the number of unaccompanied minors faced deportation as the year before. One in 13 people arrested by border patrol were minors under age 18, and the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended by officers reached 24,500 last year.
Sonia Nazario explains in the New York Times that many minors are eligible for legal immigration status, because they were abandoned or are fleeing persecution or abuse. However, few succeed in making their case because they must navigate the legal system alone and afraid:
A recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group, showed that 40 percent of unaccompanied children potentially qualify for statuses that exempt them from deportation. Among the most likely possibilities: asylum, because they fear persecution in their home country, or a special immigrant juvenile status for children abused or abandoned by a parent.
And yet, while more recent legislation has improved the odds, only around 7 percent of those who were placed in federal custody between 2007 and 2009, and who had received a ruling by mid-2010, were winning their cases. Not surprisingly, those with legal representation were nearly nine times more likely to win.
In court, these children are up against trained government lawyers. They must testify under oath, file supporting documents and navigate the complexities of immigration law, with no knowledge of the country’s language or customs, and often with only the help of a translator. Children in the courtroom often seem confused and frightened. Staff members with Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, a group whose board I serve on and the principal provider of pro bono lawyers for these children, told me of a boy in Los Angeles who carried his teddy bear for comfort and a toddler in a Texas courtroom who wet his pants when he faced the judge.
Because they are undocumented, minors have no right to a public defender in immigration courts. Earlier this year, four Democratic Senators highlighted laws that leave undocumented immigrants unprotected in a letter and a subsequent hearing that described the $18 billion enforcement system as “unnecessarily punitive” for children and families.