Imagine being 11 years old, speaking little or no English, and walking into a court room for the first time in your life. Now imagine you’re representing yourself: unsure of what to say or when to say it; unsure of where to stand or sit, likely untrusting of most adults. Yet, the court room waits and expects for you to tell your story to strangers in a way that allows you to stay in your new home. Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? Yet for the unaccompanied minors who are apprehended while trying to enter America, it’s a very real possibility. In the American justice system, immigration proceedings do not warrant an appointed attorney. Instead, these children are expected to pay for their own lawyer, find an attorney willing to work pro bono, or represent themselves in court.
This is where Kids In Need Of Defense (KIND) steps in. KIND is a non-profit organization that works to partner these kids with lawyers and law firms, providing them with legal guidance and representation. The lawyers that work alongside KIND help the children navigate the system and clarify everything in a way the children can understand. This is a dramatic change from asking children to fill out form blanks themselves. KIND matches children with lawyers to help these children understand their rights and the complex process they are going through it. In 2017, it looks like KIND needs support more than ever.
Several years ago I was able to attend a training for law firms looking to work with KIND, and I found the information invaluable. Christie Turner Herbas and Laura Nally, the KIND attorneys that led the training, not only provided valuable background information on why so many children are coming to the US, but also taught us how to handle working with the children. KIND attorneys stressed the need to explain things that would easily be overlooked, or that we might incorrectly assume the children know. For example, a child might spend months thinking that the first time she talks to a judge, she risks being deported straight from the court room (not true!). Children too young to understand borders may not grasp why moving from mom’s house in Guatemala to Grandma’s house in Maryland warrants months of legal proceedings.
The past three years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States. Children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras make up a large chunk of this number. KIND told us that, in an effort to understand the increase, the UN Refugee Agency asked 404 unaccompanied children detained by US authorities to explain why they left. The answer can largely be summed up as fear: fear of the gangs taking over their cities, fear of forced recruitment into human smuggling, fear of being killed after witnessing a crime, or fear of sexual assault. In some cases the children were victims of violent or sexual crime at the time they left; other times, they knew it was a very likely possibility and considered it safer to risk coming to America. (For more details, you can see the full study here.)
The journey of an unaccompanied child from their homeland to another country is hardly an easy one. It’s difficult to imagine many children would take the risk if they did not truly believe that very real danger awaited them should they stay at home. Everything they are struggling with must outweigh their fear of being caught, getting lost, and being kidnapped on the way to the US.
This post has been updated due to the actions of the US President in 2017.