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Undocumented Children: The Human Face of New Jersey's Tragic Immigration Crisis

How do kids who have crossed the border from Mexico end up in New Jersey -- and in the state's immigration courts?

Federal Courthouse Newark
Federal Courthouse, Newark

New Jersey immigration attorneys say that an influx of minors across the Mexican border is starting to be felt in the state's immigration courtrooms, putting pressure on already heavily burdened nonprofit legal teams as they scramble to provide representation to as many children as possible.

These minors -- many of whom are teens and preteens -- are fleeing gang violence and abusive homes, attorneys say. Once caught, they are detained in shelters run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. From there they are often released to family or family friends around the country, including New Jersey, where there is a large population of both documented and undocumented immigrants, attorney say.

Because there are only a small number of nonprofit legal groups or private attorneys who have experience with immigrant minors, many of these children and teens get minimal representation, if any. That leaves them in virtually impossible situation, fending for themselves in a language they don't understand in a legal system that is typically tailored to adults rather than children.

And even the best legal representation is no guarantee of a chance to stay in the United States with friends and family. Deportation is all too common a fate for many of these children, returning to the same situation -- personal, political, or both -- that they originally fled.

By the Numbers

Federal officials did not have state-by-state or court-by-court figures for unaccompanied minors, but 13,625 children and teens were served nationally by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Unaccompanied Alien Children Program during fiscal year 2012. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security referred 24,668 unaccompanied children nationally to the resettlement office in 2013 and federal officials say the number could be as high as 60,000 in 2014 and 90,000 in 2015.

The numbers have grown so high in recent years, officials say, that many courts have created separate juvenile dockets to move minors through the system more efficiently and to provide better service to the children and teens. The Executive Office of Immigration Review in the U.S. Department of Justice said a separate juvenile docket hears cases in Newark on Wednesdays. Immigration attorneys in the state say that there are often between 15 and 25 cases heard by the juvenile docket each week and that there are only between 30 and 50 attorneys in the state with expertise with immigrant minors.

“Over the past five years, there has been a steady increase in the number of children who have gone through that process here,” said Elissa Steglich, the managing attorney for the Immigrant Rights Program at the American Friends Service Committee in Newark. She added that the influx of younger immigrants “really reflects the humanitarian crisis in Mexico and Central America and the security concerns that children there have.”

A federal plan, called Justice AmeriCorps, to train and provide about 100 attorneys and legal aides nationally for unaccompanied children facing deportation should help, attorneys and other advocates say, though New Jersey is likely to see no more than one or two of the volunteers.

Critics of federal immigration policy, including New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, say the program and others that aid immigrants will only attract more undocumented minors into the country. Immigration control groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform at the national level and New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control at the state level view programs like Justice AmeriCorps and the renewal of the federal Deferred Action program as signaling that the United States is not serious about controlling its borders.

The Obama administration announced on June 5 that it was renewing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which administratively forestalls potential deportation for two years for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before their 16th birthday. More than 500,000 unauthorized immigrants applied for deferral during the program’s first two years.

The president also announced in a letter to Congress on June 30 that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would be streamlining the removal or deportation process for minors snagged at the border, increasing penalties for smugglers and seeking funding for additional border agents, judges, and facilities. The letter did not identify a price tag for the program, but The New York Times reported on June 2 that he would be seeking $2 billion to cover the cost of his new deterrence strategy.

Characterized as 'Insanity'

Gayle Kesselman, cochairwoman of New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control, described the Justice AmeriCorps program as “insanity,” and said the administration was unconcerned with the impact that immigration had on American workers.

“We have a federal government that is looking to provide jobs and legal services for illegal immigrant children and teenagers,” she said. “This is why we have a flood of illegal immigrant children across our borders.”

She said that unemployment among teens remains high and that “making it easier for young people to come into this country illegally … makes no sense.”

Advocates for undocumented immigrants disagree. They say the influx is being caused by a spike in violence in Central and South America. Vera Parra, an organizer with Faith in New Jersey (formerly PICO New Jersey), likened it to a refugee crisis.

“There are powerful and violent forces pushing children out of their country,” she said. “It really is a refugee issue. It is something that -- UNICEF and UN peacekeepers should be there, the same way as with other refugee issues. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we are thinking about the kids who are coming in.”

Parra tells the story of Edgar, who had lived in the United States until he was about 10 years old when his family was deported to Mexico. He attempted to reenter the United States two years ago when he was about 14 in an effort to escape growing gang violence in his village, Parra said. Edgar “saw so much violence there, saw his friend get shot,” so he attempted to cross the border on his own. He was detained and eventually sent to the Elizabeth Detention Center, before he was released to family.

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