At the same time that the Trump administration introduced immigration policy that will create more unaccompanied minors, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement has cut funding for such children to receive free legal representation.
Meanwhile, the government has just quietly shut off a legal lifeline for this very population, putting them at an even higher risk of deportation. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal program that for over a decade has funded organizations representing unaccompanied minors in immigration court while those children live with adult relatives or guardians, told the groups to stop taking new cases just days after the family separation policy began, multiple sources from nonprofit groups funded by ORR told me.
Slashing legal services while throwing more youths into the immigration system will inevitably lead to these vulnerable kids being deported, advocates told me. Immigrants have no right to counsel in these proceedings, and children formerly tied to their parents’ cases will now generally have their own cases. That's because proceedings must go forward where each individual is located, and a parent could be detained in a different state from the shelter or sponsor of their child. Additionally, any parent in detention is put on a detained docket, which cannot include non-detained family members.
A significant number of children already are forced to represent themselves in immigration court, and that number will now rise.
Children without proper legal representation are far more likely to wind up deported, as they lack the ability or understanding of immigration laws that could work to their favor.
“The saddest part is, this all came when there was all this media attention on the lost children,” said Camila Alvarez, managing attorney of the immigrant advocacy organization CARECEN’s unaccompanied minor legal representation project. “And representation of the children definitely helps in reducing the children who are missing because they don't have attorneys and are afraid to go to court.”