As border apprehensions fall, a serious 'minor' problem emerges

Soon after the number of undocumented immigrants nabbed at the border plummeted in 2011 — 340,000 caught compared to highs upwards of 1 million annually — we got news from the Pew Hispanic Center that migration from Mexico to the U.S. has essentially stopped, and maybe even reversed.

Put a heavy asterisk next to that fact, however. Even with such record-low numbers, an unsettling trend is surfacing, with the feds reporting a notable surge in unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, caught crossing into the U.S. And unlike any other legal system in the country, those minors caught up within the immigration court system, unless lucky enough to score pro bono help, will be tasked with acting as their own lawyers within the frustratingly complex patchwork of current immigration law if looking for asylum or relief in the U.S.
South Texas shelters for such children are bursting at capacity, and at least 100 last month were transferred to a temporary shelter at Lackland Air Force Base, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency overseeing the Office of Refugee Resettlement. According to HHS figures, from October 2011 thru March of this year, 5,252 unaccompanied kids landed in U.S. custody, a staggering 93 percent increase from the same period last year. For March 2012, the latest month with available data, 1,390 kids were detained at the border, compared to just 655 for March 2011, or 687 in March 2010. The agency says the majority will eventually be reunited with families.
Nonprofits and immigrant rights groups working with undocumented children are struggling to pinpoint exactly why more minors are fleeing to the U.S. There's worry that continued instability in Central America could be the driver. Roughly three quarters of the recent influx were teenage boys, and more than two thirds came from Guatemala, a quarter from El Salvador, and 20 percent from Honduras, countries with some of the highest homicide rates in the world. About 12 percent came from Mexico, with parts of the county still mired in drug violence.
Meredith Linsky, director of the American Bar Association's South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, which provides legal assistance for asylum seekers and immigrant children in the Rio Grande Valley, says many of the kids speak of fleeing gang violence or economic insecurity. Linsky also suggests a recent change in Mexican law easing restrictions on travel through the country for Central American migrants may be playing a role.
But whatever the cause, the result is clear. South Texas shelters are maxed out, Linsky says, estimating such shelters now house about 600 unaccompanied minors throughout the region, up from some 400 just eight months ago.
And as more children hit the system, there's worry over how they'll fare once inside the tangled web of immigration court proceedings. "There are so few resources available already to anybody detained in South Texas, adult or children," said St. Mary's University law school professor Lee Teran, who directs the school's immigration and human rights clinic and represents a number unaccompanied minors sheltered locally. That's key, because unlike in criminal cases, where defendants get public defenders if they can't afford lawyers, those who go through immigration court must pay for their own attorney, hope to score pro bono help, or go the proceedings alone. That's often with limited English and little to no understanding of how the system works, Teran says. And it includes children fleeing violence, threats at home, abuse, as well as abandonment or neglect.
"These are children with serious problems caught up in this, along with others who may be incompetent or mentally ill," Teran said. "We're representing one who's only seven years old right now." It's largely left up to the nonprofit world to determine whether kids qualify for legal status, such as asylum, or if they're able to get visas as a result of trafficking or being victims of crime, she says.
Virtually nowhere else in the U.S. law are kids deemed competent and able to represent themselves in open court. Yet in the immigration system, minors must respond to charges against them, detail what forms of relief they might apply for, testify under oath, and be judged on their credibility.
"I've represented hundreds, if not thousands, of people in immigration proceedings, and there are very few adults that I've encountered who could successfully navigate that complex system alone," said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of San Antonio-based RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services). Along with representing children, RAICES conducts legal screenings and know-your-rights presentations for kids like the those recently shuffled to Lackland.
Housing and shelters in town for unaccompanied minors picked up by Border Patrol, Ryan says, are similar to what kids placed in CPS custody experience. "But the difference is, with those children in CPS care, their parents are subject to an investigation and potential prosecution," Ryan said. "In the context of these unaccompanied minors, they're seen as defendants within the system."
Still, some like David Walding with the Bernardo Kohler Center, which advocates for immigrants in Texas, worry how well know-your-rights presentations stick with elementary school-age kids. "They're not entitled to representation, even as children … That's the serious, underlying problem."

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