Op-Ed: Uncovering New Jersey’s Unknown Child-Migration Crisis

At present, more than 5,000 children who fled violence in Mexico and Central America live with relatives in the state

Margarethe Laurenzi and Randi Mandelbaum
Pedro, a young boy from Honduras, lost his mother when he was 12. Since then, life had been hell. Forced into a job in construction, Pedro would return home each night to regular, savage beatings by his father. In one instance, Pedro’s father hanged him by his neck with a rope until he passed out. After years of enduring this abuse, Pedro faced an impossible choice: he could escape on a journey across hundreds of miles to the United States or he could face near-certain death.

While images in the media show horrific scenes of Syrian children washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean, there is another child migration crisis taking place closer to home.

Since October 2013, more than 132,000 unaccompanied minors like Pedro have fled pandemic violence in places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, many of them arriving in the United States alone, traumatized, and injured after spending weeks or months on a life-threatening journey. These children are not nameless faces, but rather boys and girls whose fate in life rests on a dangerous escape to the United States.

The federal government has placed more than 5,000 of these children with relatives in New Jersey as they await word from immigration authorities and the courts on whether they will be deported. These children in New Jersey represent the seventh-largest population of unaccompanied minors in the United States.

What happens to these children — their health, safety, and if they get to that point, education – is of maximum concern to the children themselves and increasingly to the communities across New Jersey they currently call home.

Where this is sorted out is in the immigration removal proceeding. Adversarial and legally complex, the proceedings are conducted without regard to a child’s age or developmental state, making them nearly impossible for a child to navigate alone. An added wrinkle is that children’s cases in New Jersey often require initiating a separate proceeding in state Family Court.

Whether an unaccompanied child has an attorney in these proceedings is the single most-important factor influencing a case’s outcome. Children represented by attorneys are 10 times more likely to be permitted to remain in the United States than children who lack representation. In New Jersey, less than 15 percent of these children have legal representation.

This is where the New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children steps in. A collaboration of nonprofits and law schools, with key law firm and corporate partners, the consortium adds capacity to those institutions providing free legal representation to unaccompanied children, namely nonprofit immigrant rights organizations; New Jersey’s law schools, particularly their clinical programs; and the private bar.

Thanks to generous funding from the Community Foundation of New Jersey and several of its fundholders, the consortium has been able to retain a supporting attorney, hired through the Rutgers Child Advocacy Clinic, who will provide much-needed family law expertise to pro bono lawyers who represent these young people in court.

This new attorney and others will help children like 17-year old Yessenia, who escaped an abusive home and today is raising a healthy baby girl in New Jersey; 15-year old Nayeli, who eluded kidnappers intent on raping her and now has asylum in New Jersey; and Pedro, who now lives with his brother and attends high school in Trenton.

The stories of Yessenia, Nayeli, and Pedro are hardly unique. They are part of everyday life in communities across Central America, and why the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that nearly two-thirds of the children qualify as refugees and deserve international protection.

That New Jersey is proactively finding ways to protect these children and ensure a brighter future for them is a testament to our state’s collective humanity. The child migrant crisis is very real in New Jersey, especially since our capacity to represent these children is woefully inadequate, but our work and the support we have received to date shows that our communities are ready to help. We have a lot of work to do.