The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project gives unaccompanied child migrants a voice in court.
The boy approaches the stand and faces the judge – a man built like a Greek column on a courthouse.The judge rattles off legalese, a monotone drone that if set to music would require only a single bass note. Then he addresses the boy.
“How are you today, Andrew.” It’s not really a question.
The translation comes through the boy’s headphones, and he answers: “Muy bien.”
“How old are you.”
The boy speaks softly, but the translator’s response is loud and clear: “Eleven years old.”
Andrew is one of the 28,579 unaccompanied minors apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014. Most people know about the recent rise in child migrants fleeing extreme violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico. What many people don’t know is that these children are expected to represent themselves in U.S. immigration court.
“Are you prepared to go forward?” the judge asks. On the wall behind him hangs a golden seal that reads: “Qui Pro Domina Justitia Sequitur.” Who pursues justice on behalf of Lady Justice.
That is the question.
Children and adults filter into the Phoenix Immigration Court’s waiting area, a sterile space that smacks of the DMV. After unaccompanied minors are apprehended and sent to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shelter, they are released to an assigned sponsor – a relative or foster guardian. Their case is transferred to the sponsor’s home state, where they wait until they’re summoned to a court like this.
Making her way from family to family is Brenda Galván Aguirre, Esq. She’s the Phoenix Justice Americorps Fellow with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP), the only nonprofit in Arizona that offers free legal services to detained immigrant adults and children.
Galván Aguirre approaches Lupe, a 16-year-old girl nervously swinging feet clad in buckled heels. She introduces herself and says in Spanish, “If you want, I can help you with your case. I can ask the judge for more time. Would you like me to go inside with you and talk to the judge?”
“Sí,” the girl answers.
“For me, it’s kind of creepy, thinking what would happen if my children had to represent themselves in court.”
In states that don’t have an organization similar to the Florence Project, kids like Lupe and Andrew face courtrooms alone, without any guidance.
Without the Florence Project, this waiting area would be filled only with nervous whispers that barely rise above the whirr of the air-conditioning. As it is, Kira Aranow, the FIRRP’s Phoenix Legal Assistant, stands up and addresses everyone, explaining in Spanish what will happen in court and answering several people’s questions.
It’s a condensed version of the FIRRP’s Know Your Rights presentations, when attorneys instruct children and interview them individually to determine if they have a case. If a child was abused, persecuted, or trafficked, for example, he or she may be eligible for asylum, a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa, or a T visa for victims of human trafficking.
During regular clinics at the FIRRP Children’s Program office in Phoenix, the staff conducts role-playing exercises with groups of detained children. The kids are assigned various parts – judge, attorney, defendant – and told what they’ll need to say in court. Some will go on to defend themselves, others will be represented by pro bono lawyers or FIRRP attorneys.
“They do a really amazing job of making it fun for the kids,” says Mariana del Hierro, development and outreach coordinator. “But for me, it’s kind of creepy, thinking [what would happen] if my children had to represent themselves in court. That’s amazing that our government expects that.”
Many of these children have suffered unimaginable trauma, like FIRRP client Leivis, who made the harrowing journey from Honduras to the U.S. after gang members murdered his brother and threatened to kill him and his family.
Once in the U.S., these children struggle to support themselves and to overcome their demons. And then they’re expected to relive their ordeal in court, alone. Someone who can answer their questions, empower them, and stand by their side can make all the difference to a traumatized child.
“I think we serve such an important need to be out there and be present with people – adults and children,” says Lauren Dasse, the Florence Project’s executive director. “To give them the information and to help people… escape persecution or violence. That’s why I do this.”