New York Times Feature Propels Broad Public Awareness of Unaccompanied Minor Crisis, Highlights WJCNY’s Reponse
New York Times
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Surge in Child Migrants Reaches New York, Overwhelming Advocates
By KIRK SEMPLE
JUNE 17, 2014
Leo, an undocumented minor from Guatemala, takes English classes and gets legal guidance at the Atlas: DIY center for immigrant youths in Brooklyn.
For more than a month, 16-year-old Cristian threaded his way from his home in rural Guatemala to the United States, hoping to reunite with his father, whom he had not seen in nearly four years. Guided by smugglers, he rode in cars, buses and trains, walked countless miles, dodged the authorities in three countries, hid out in dreary safe houses and went days at a time without food.
But Cristian’s trip came to an abrupt halt in March, when he was corralled on a patch of Texas ranchland by American law enforcements agents.
Now the daunting trials of his migration have been replaced by a new set of difficulties. Though he was released to his father, a kitchen worker in a restaurant in Ulster County, N.Y., Cristian has been ordered to appear in immigration court for a deportation hearing and is trying to find a low-cost lawyer to take his case while he also struggles to learn English, fit into a new high school and reacquaint himself with his father.
“I pray that they don’t deport me,” said Cristian, who asked that his full name not be used because he remains undocumented.
Cristian is one of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have illegally crossed the border with Mexico in recent months, in a wave that has overwhelmed immigration officials and prompted the Obama administration to declare a humanitarian crisis and open three emergency shelters, on military bases in California, Oklahoma and Texas.
But while the government’s response has been largely focused on the Southwest, the surge of child migrants is quickly becoming a crisis around the country. The fallout is being felt most acutely in places with large immigrant populations, like New York, where newly arrived children and their relatives are flooding community groups, seeking help in fighting deportation orders, getting health care, dealing with the psychological traumas of migration, managing the challenges of family reunification and enrolling in school.
“It’s almost like a refugee crisis,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group.
Federal officials will not reveal how many children they are holding, how many are being released or where they are being sent. But in the New York region, immigrant advocacy organizations say they have seen a stunning rise in the number of unaccompanied minors seeking help in the past several months.
“All of a sudden it went from a trickle to more like a river,” said Anne Pilsbury, director of Central American Legal Assistance in Brooklyn.
At the Worker Justice Center of New York, a group based in Kingston, N.Y., that helps farmworkers and other low-wage workers, employees were caught off guard by a similarly sharp increase.
“We are trying to triage,” said Emma Kreyche, organizing and advocacy coordinator for the group. “I don’t think anyone really knows what the scope of this is and how to see what’s coming down the pike and figure out how to respond.”
Many of the unaccompanied minors say they have been driven to leave their home countries because of violence and the threat of gang recruitment. Others have been motivated by economic necessity, a desire to rejoin parents who came to the United States years ago or by a perceived change in American policy that would favor child immigrants. (The Obama administration has emphasized that there has been no such policy change.)
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Most of the children who have been detained at the southwest border have been channeled into deportation proceedings and, within several days, handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which cares for them until they can be released to relatives or legal guardians in the United States.
The majority of the department’s 100 or so shelters are near the border, but others are scattered around the country, said Kenneth J. Wolfe, spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, the division that oversees them. At least two are in the New York metropolitan area, housing a total of about 300 children; they have been at capacity for months, advocacy groups said.
Mr. Wolfe would not comment on the department’s current capacity or whether the agency was planning to expand regional shelter capacity.
Leo, who also asked that his full name not be used because he remains undocumented, spent about two months at a shelter in the New York area waiting to be reunited with his brother, who was living in Brooklyn. Leo had left his home in Guatemala at the end of 2012, when he was 16, fleeing gangs in his hometown and hoping to find work in the United States. After traveling for three months he had been detained in Houston.
A child with the Safe Passage Project, which offers free legal counsel to children facing deportation, played soccer in Chelsea. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
“I wanted to better myself,” Leo, now 18, said during an interview at Atlas: DIY, a center for immigrant youths in Brooklyn, where he takes English classes and gets legal guidance.
Many of the children who have been released from detention and wind up in New York are funneled onto special monthly court dockets for minors. Those who arrive at court without a lawyer have the option of being screened by pro bono lawyers who will try to identify possible grounds for relief from deportation, such as political asylum, or for special visas for children who have been victims of crime or abuse.
On a recent Thursday morning, several dozen children clustered with their parents and other relatives in a hallway outside an immigration courtroom in downtown Manhattan. Several immigrant advocacy groups share responsibility for handling the special dockets, and in June the job fell to Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit based at New York Law School that provides free legal counsel to immigrant children facing deportation.
“Do you have an attorney?” asked Lenni Benson, the founder and director of Safe Passage, as she went from family to family introducing herself. “Do you want a free attorney?” Those without representation were led to a room where they were interviewed by a team of lawyers and paralegals.
It is unclear how many of the recently arrived minors will be allowed to stay permanently in the United States. But Ms. Benson said that nearly 90 percent of the unaccompanied minors her group encountered appeared to qualify for some form of immigration relief. Lawyers at the Door, another New York City group that provides free legal services to young immigrants, said that more than half of the children it screened during a special immigration court docket in May appeared to qualify for some form of relief.
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Other groups who principally represent child immigrants also said the soaring demand, combined with limited resources, was prompting them to pick their cases carefully, focusing on those that had the best chance of success.
Lenni Benson, second from the left, is the director of Safe Passage. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Beyond legal help, the immigrants have other urgent needs that are not necessarily being met, including health care, psychological counseling and educational support, advocates said.
Mario Russell, director of the Immigrant and Refugee Services Division for Catholic Charities Community Services in New York, said a lot of the children had suffered trauma, either in their home countries or en route to the United States.
“Over time, how do these kids receive the care that they need?” Mr. Russell asked. “How many will be lost into their communities? How many are going to be sent to work? How many will not go to school? How many are going to be sick?”
Service providers have begun discussing among themselves how to deal with the surge at this end of the pipeline, and wondering where they might get much-needed funding to provide additional help for the growing population of distressed immigrant children.
As he considered the challenge, Mr. Russell remembered a case he had several years ago. He had been working with a girl, an unauthorized immigrant, to legalize her status. Her deportation was dismissed and she was finally approved to receive a green card. But before she received it, she dropped off Mr. Russell’s radar.
“She just disappeared,” he recalled. “She could’ve been trafficked, working in an apple orchard. I have no idea.”
Mr. Russell was never able to locate her.
“Her card is still in my desk,” he said.
Correction: June 17, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the school where Safe Passage Project is based. It is New York Law School, not New York University Law School. The error was repeated in a photo caption.
Additional Media Coverage:
RNN Richard French Live: 6/20/14