Lawyers quickly learn how to help child migrants

At the Aug. 22 lawyers’ seminar, an image was shown of officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for deportations.  Photo by Zach Williams
At the Aug. 22 lawyers’ seminar, an image was shown of officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for deportations. Photo by Zach Williams

BY ZACH WILLIAMS  |  One Tribeca-centered gathering of legal minds worked late on Friday the other week so that, come the following Monday, they could defend children facing fast-tracked deportation proceedings at 26 Federal Plaza.

About 120 people, mostly law students and lawyers, attended a crash course on immigration law on Aug. 22 at New York Law School as part of the Safe Passage Project. They will seek to join an effort arguing that 3,347 children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, and now in New York State, came to this country for asylum and should not be deported.

Lenni Benson, the project’s director, is a professor at the law school, at 185 W. Broadway.

Dozens of these children are having their cases heard each day at the federal courthouse, Benson said, making the acquisition of new legal resources imperative for the project to keep pace with the need.

“The need is tremendous,” she told the audience. “We already know that counsel is not paid for by the government. We’re mobilizing law students and other volunteers to be the eyes and ears of due process.”

Benson told The Villager in an interview that the project has grown due to the recent spike in unaccompanied children crossing the border. While plans are underway to expand the Safe Passage Project, both monetary and human resources are stretched, she said.

“This has grown from a shoebox on my desk to over 350 active cases,” she noted.

While funding is limited, another full-time position may expand the project’s staff in coming weeks, she said. The City Council, meanwhile, may add unspecified “resources” to the effort, as well, according to Public Advocate Letitia James, who attended the Aug. 22 seminar.

“We definitely need attorneys,” James said. “We need more interpreters. The surge in immigrants is a real strain on the limited resources of our city and state.”

New York has received the second highest number of unaccompanied alien children, or U.A.C., who have come to this country in increasing numbers this year and inspired fresh scrutiny of U.S. immigration policies. Texas has received the most with 4,280.

As the backlog of cases grew and political pressure mounted, the Obama administration announced on Aug. 13 that U.A.C. cases would be prioritized, potentially leading to many of the children being deported in the coming months rather than the years many deportation cases typically drag on.

But starting at 8 a.m. every day, Safe Passage attorneys go to 26 Federal Plaza to argue that many of these children escaped violence in their home countries and should be granted “special immigrant juvenile status.” Such a classification would enable the youths to avoid deportation and potentially gain permanent residency.

To be eligible for that status, applicants must be less than 21 years old and unmarried. They also must prove that returning to their home country would endanger them, and that reunification with one or both parents is not a reasonable option, according to the Safe Passage Project.

There is much to learn, though, before an attorney can effectively represent children in such cases, according to Benson. The two-hour Aug. 22 seminar was more than just a legal primer on relevant immigration policy. Attendees also learned about the current violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the three countries from which most of the children come.

Immigration proceedings intimidate many of these children, Benson and staff attorney Claire Thomas told the audience. Special arrangements should be made to engage them, hear their cases thoroughly and screen them through a lengthy though necessary questionnaire, they said.

In an interview, Thomas said attorneys involved with the project all play the same role regardless of their previous areas of concentration.

“We have lawyers who are commercial litigators,” Thomas said. “We have lawyers who actually aren’t right now practicing law. For instance, one lawyer is a musician. One works at a bookstore. But anyone with this wonderful thing that is a law license can participate in becoming educated about immigration and family law and being able to represent a child.”

There is a personal toll, as well, to deal with as seen when two project attorneys began “shaking and crying” last week after hearing a juvenile client’s personal experience, Thomas related.

A United Nations report detailed many accounts of children within the three Central American countries who came to the U.S. in order to escape criminal gangs who threatened them.

One female asylum-seeker quoted in the report, stated, “In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there.”

Lawyers at the Aug. 22 seminar said afterward that the situation’s seriousness spurred them to action. In turn, taking on the children’s cases requires certain financial sacrifices, said attorney John Tobin, who added that he took on similar cases through Central American Legal Assistance in the past.

“There’s all the work in the world that I would do if I could do it for free,” said Elise Burton, a Brooklyn-based immigration attorney.

Pete Gleason, a Tribeca attorney and member of Downtown Independent Democrats, was an enthusiastic participant in the training seminar.

“The last time I checked,” he said, “it still said the same words at the base of the Statue of Liberty.”