New York City is witnessing a staggering influx of unaccompanied children from Central America who are fleeing extortion, rape, gang violence and murder in their home countries. Thousands of children apprehended at the border are being relocated to New York to await court dates, while others travel here on their own, under the radar, to reunite with relatives. All of these children need and deserve qualified legal counsel to determine their eligibility to remain in the United States, but resources are scarce. NYLAG has responded to this humanitarian crisis with swift action at the community level, and a thoughtful federal policy recommendation that would relieve overburdened immigration courts, and protect innocent children.

At a Bronx clinic, a NYLAG volunteer attorney assists a young immigrant and her child with their cases.

At a Bronx clinic in a local church, a NYLAG volunteer attorney assists a young immigrant and her child with their cases.

Early Intervention
Beginning in July, NYLAG launched a large-scale clinic initiative at schools, churches and other safe spaces. Working together with the New York Immigration Coalition, these clinics operate outside the court setting to screen children for immigration relief while also providing important information about school enrollment, health care and other services.

The largest component of the clinics is the legal screening, during which the children, as well as their family members, undergo a full legal needs assessment. NYLAG attorneys review all potential options for immigration relief, provide information about how to keep track of upcoming court dates, and warn about immigration fraud and unscrupulous practitioners – all in their native language. NYLAG also assists those who have been served to appear, but who do not yet have court dates. This early intervention by qualified legal counsel is extremely important to prevent potentially serious consequences that could jeopardize these children’s chances for legal relief. It gives them the chance to learn about their legal rights and options – and begin pursuing avenues of relief – before they are forced to appear alone in court.

Lines for the Bronx clinic stretch around the corner as hundreds of immigrants wait to be screened.

Lines for the Bronx clinic stretch around the corner as hundreds of immigrants wait to be screened.

Most of the children do not speak English and the vast majority of them are unable to understand the complexity and intricacy of U.S. immigration laws. They may not even be aware that they have pending court cases. For example, at one clinic an attorney discovered that the mandated hearing for a young mother and her two children was scheduled in two days in Texas. NYLAG immediately filed a Motion to Change Venue with the Court in Texas by overnight mail. The motion was granted over the phone the very next day. As a result, this young family avoided removal and now has the time and opportunity to build their cases for relief.

The community legal clinics are staffed by NYLAG paid immigration staff, as well as trained pro bono attorneys. By leveraging the expertise of the private bar, NYLAG has been able to provide services to significant numbers of unaccompanied children – and to do it effectively and efficiently:

  • Four clinics held thus far screened more than 500 children and their family members. Two clinics are scheduled for November.
  • Virtually all of the children screened are potentially eligible for relief. At the August clinic in the Bronx, for example, attorneys screened 132 unaccompanied children from Honduras, many of whom were already in removal, and 131 of whom were found have viable relief options.
  • The community clinics enable NYLAG to triage the most challenging and complicated cases for full representation. Thus far, NYLAG has picked up more than 40 of these complex cases for representation, including asylum based on gang violence, and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) based on parental abandonment.

Executive Action
In September, President Obama announced a plan to allow children in Central America who are victims rape and gang violence to apply for refugee status in their home countries. But with conservative estimates predicting that over 100,000 unaccompanied minors will enter the US by year’s end, far more than the 4,000 refugee visas Mr. Obama has proposed are needed.

Irina Matiychenko, Director of NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit, has proposed a refugee program modeled after an earlier US immigration program that addressed a similarly urgent humanitarian need. In 1990, the United States granted refugee status to religious minorities subject to persecution in the Former Soviet Union and other countries. All persons who belonged to a special group, such as Jews, were presumed to be subjected to persecution and thus eligible for refugee status.

The NYLAG proposal would establish a presumption that certain Central American youths are at grave risk of violence or even death in their home country, and are therefore eligible for relief. In keeping with the President’s plan, the screening for refugee status would be done in the country of origin, deterring children who would not ultimately qualify for refugee status from attempting to undertake the dangerous journey across the border.

This form of relief does not set program parameters such as age limits, or require applicants to individually prove that their fear of persecution is well-founded. Also, there would be no cap on the number of individuals who would potentially benefit . For children fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala there would be a presumption of persecution, making those who are not granted one of the 4,000 refugee visas eligible for humanitarian parole status based on the urgency of the crisis.

Yisroel Schulman, NYLAG President and Attorney-in-Charge, has sent letters to members of Congress asking them to join with NYLAG in urging President Obama to use executive action to adopt this plan: “It has worked in the past to aid immigrants fleeing persecution in other countries and it can work now to help innocent children who are literally running for their lives.”