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

Edgar was lucky, Parra said, because he had access to an attorney, but too many child and teen immigrants lack representation, meaning their often-legitimate protection claims do not get heard. “Many (of these children) would be able to qualify for some sort of status or relief,” she said.

Edgar’s story is not unusual, said Kimberly Krone, youth justice attorney with the American Friends Service Committee. She has two current cases, male teens from Guatemala, that share some similarities with Edgar. Both fled violence -- in the home and from gangs. Both were detained at the border more than a year ago while crossing and placed with either family or friends in New Jersey in 2013. Both teens qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a protected status that means they were fleeing abuse, abandonment or neglect by at least one parent or guardian in their home country, Krone said.

Most of the minors she sees qualify for such status, Krone said, but the process is long and cumbersome, involving multiple court visits, making representation crucial to ensure that the teen and child immigrants have access to all of the resources to which they may be entitled. Gang violence is common, she said, and there are “definitely a lot of young boys who come because of gang recruitment, who have been beaten up multiple times and who feel that if they resist they will lose their lives.”

This drives them across the border, she said, where they often are caught and detained. They remain in federal custody for an average of about 40 days, Krone said, before they are placed with family or friends who are subjected to background checks to ensure that the minors can be cared for.

Their Days in Court

Once placed with a family, the minors may face numerous court appearances -- both in immigration court, where they are facing removal proceedings, and in family court, which reviews their family status and, if a minor is granted legal status and issued residency papers, approves guardianship.

“Children are not guaranteed an attorney in immigration proceedings,” Krone said. “If they can’t afford one, they are relying on a couple of organizations in New Jersey. Cases are time-intensive and there are only so many cases that we can represent at one time.

“We’re not increasing our capacity,” she added. “More and more minors are unrepresented.”

Steglich pointed to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, issued earlier this year. According to the report, 58 percent of the 404 “displaced children” from Central America and Mexico interviewed by UNHCR were “forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.”

Steglich said it is a combination of “gang violence in Central America, other criminal organizations, and a lack of security that oftentimes makes it dangerous for children even to go to school.” There also could be situations in which children were left with caretakers in their home countries who are no longer capable of caring for the children, due to illness or local economic issues.

A February 2014 report issued by KIND -- Kids In Need of Defense, a national organization with an office in Newark -- identified similar issues driving child immigration. In addition to the gang violence and problems at home, it said that drug violence and natural disasters like the Haitian earthquake also are forcing children across the border, though New Jersey attorneys say the vast majority in the state come from Mexico and South and Central America.

KIND’s report also outlined specific issues facing juveniles during removal proceedings, including language (both a lack of English and a failure of the court to use language appropriate to the age of the minor), the antagonistic nature of court proceedings, the length of proceedings, and the minors’ inability to understand the ramifications of what is happening in court.

“Lacking representation means that a positive outcome is far less likely and that a child’s experience during the proceedings will be unnecessarily negative and in some cases traumatic,” the report says.

Violence and Corruption

Minors are coming from countries beset by violence and where government corruption is common, attorneys said. They can feel intimidated by the legal process, especially because they and many of their caretakers do not speak English. This causes some to miss court appearances, which could lead to an order of deportation.

“Court and formal proceedings are a new phenomenon for them,” Steglich said. “Even if a judge says they are eligible, the information is not available enough for even a child with an adult caretaker to do the research and work on their own.

“Even the most simple application, if a child or caretaker, if they share with judge that they have a fear of return, the judge may hand them an application form in English with no translation available,” Steglich said. “They have to complete the form in English, file it in a certain location and with a certain cover sheet, get a receipt, and then come back to court with the receipt.

“They have to do all of these little things that even many attorneys who don’t regularly handle children’s cases aren’t aware of,” she added. “To place that burden on someone who is unrepresented is unfair.”

Steglitch says the Newark immigration court has made efforts on behalf of juveniles -- the juvenile docket has a more relaxed environment and offers more cohesive services for children -- but the lack of representation remains a significant issue. And Catholic Charities offers a family orientation program to help minors and their guardians understand the process. But “most of the immigration bar handles adult cases,” Steglich said.

“It is built for adults, but there is a great need for attorneys who are working with children, who know the specialized laws and procedures for children and how to work with children,” she said.

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