BY AMY TAXIN
LOS ANGELES – Most of the nearly 60,000 Central American children who have arrived on the U.S.- Mexico border in the past year still don’t have lawyers to represent them in immigration court, and advocates are scrambling to train volunteer attorneys to help cope with the massive case-load.
With the number of unaccompanied immigrant children more than doubling this past fiscal year, the need for attorneys has surged, and it has been exacerbated by the immigration courts’ decision to fast-track children’s cases, holding initial hearings within a few weeks instead of months.
Immigrants can have counsel in immigration courts, but lawyers are not guaranteed or provided at government expense. Having an attorney can make a big difference: While almost half of children with attorneys were allowed to remain in the country, only 10 percent of those without representation were allowed to stay, according to analysis of cases through June by the Transactional Records Access Clearing house at Syracuse University.
Efforts are under way from White Plains, New York, to New Orleans to train attorneys at private law firms on the country’s byzantine immigration laws and how to work with traumatized, Spanish-speaking children, many of whom are fleeing violence – a far cry from the corporate clients most deal with on a daily basis.
“We’re doing pretty well on finding willing lawyers. We’ve got to get them trained, we’ve got to get them matched to that child,” said Reid Trautz, director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s practice and professionalism center. “It just takes time.”
Last month, Vice President Joe Biden urged lawyers to increase efforts to take on the children’s cases. Since then, the cities of San Francisco and New York have each announced plans to allocate roughly $2 million to help provide more lawyers for unaccompanied minors, California’s Legislature approved $3 million for the effort.
About 800 immigration lawyers have signed up to volunteer on the cases, the immigration lawyers association said.
So have many other attorneys without any background in immigration law. They are being trained and paired with experienced immigration practitioners, who serve as mentors.
“We’ve had tax lawyers do this, corporate lawyers, real estate – anybody can do it,” said Ricardo Martinez-Cid, president of the Cuban American Bar Association, which started a program earlier this year to represent unaccompanied children in Miami.
Some children will apply for green cards under a federal program for abused and abandoned children, While others who came fleeing violence In EI Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are seeking asylum.
Before the recent influx of unaccompanied children, only about half were represented, said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit that pairs volunteer lawyers with children.
She could not say how many children now have lawyers, but said certainly fewer than before.
Advocates have sued to demand that the government provide the children with attorneys at the government’s expense. The lawsuit is pending before a judge in Seattle.