At age 2, most toddlers are learning to say their name, sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and sort objects by color. Last week, staff at the new Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights office in Phoenix met to help a 2-year-old get a fair trial in immigration court.
Without this organization – the only one in the country focused exclusively on providing legal advocates for unaccompanied immigrant children and young trafficking victims – this child might have had to face a federal judge alone.
In 2014 and 2015, 108,000 unaccompanied minors arrived at U.S. borders. This year alone, the government anticipates receiving an unprecedented 70,000-plus children.
Most are fleeing cartel and gang violence and extreme poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. After a dangerous journey in which they face kidnappers, gang members, abuse and death threats, many present themselves to authorities at the border, which is protocol for seeking asylum in the U.S.
But America probably doesn’t resemble the haven of these children’s hopes. When it comes to the treatment of unaccompanied minor immigrants, the United States seems like something out of a 19th century novel or a 21st century underdeveloped nation.
U.S. immigration courts do not recognize children as distinct from adults, and even infants are expected to represent themselves in court proceedings, which are typically adversarial and intimidating.
Incredibly, unlike in other types of court proceedings involving children, federal immigration judges are not required to consider the best interests of the child. That means they can deport kids back to situations where they face abuse and even murder.
That’s where the Young Center comes in. The organization recruits and trains volunteers to advocate for children in their native language. They meet with the children regularly to develop relationships, gather information regarding their personal circumstances and share the details with the center’s attorneys, then accompany the child to immigration court and asylum interviews.
The Young Center is also working to change federal immigration policy so that children in immigration proceedings are recognized as children, and so their best interests are taken into account. Their goal is that before any child is deported, the judge must consider whether deportation will endanger the child or permanently separate them from their parents.
The Chicago-based organization recently opened an office in Phoenix that expects to help about 85 children over a 12-month period. Arizona is the second largest point of entry after Texas and receives a particularly vulnerable population. More than 70 percent of child arrivals in Arizona come from Guatemala, so many migrants speak indigenous languages and do not have an existing community to receive them.
And unlike the Lone Star State, Arizona does not have family detention facilities, so children arriving at the southern Arizona border are more likely to be separated from their parents.
In the next several months, the Young Center will open offices in Los Angeles and San Antonio, expanding to eight locations nationwide.
For more information, visit the sites for the Young Center and the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, which provides legal assistance for immigrants of all ages, including unaccompanied minors.