United States: Where Have All the Central American Children Gone?

Last Updated: October 13 2015
Article by Stephen J Brogan

The major media for weeks have been covering the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe resulting from the terror that an unchecked ISIS has brought to Syria. Now forgotten is our own ongoing refugee crisis: tens of thousands of Central American minors continue to cross into the United States, primarily along the Texas border, each year.

This remarkable migration of teens and children from Central America received intense media coverage when the inflow of unaccompanied minors spiked last year from the current rate of about 40,000 annually to more than 60,000. Similar, but not officially reported, numbers of children arrived with a parent (usually the mother), overwhelming the government's ability to process or house these immigrants. But after a few months of political finger-pointing and the eventual dispersal of the new influx to communities throughout the country, the media's attention waned.

The root cause of this migration continues, however, unabated. These young people are fleeing societies wracked by corruption and brutal violence brought to three countries in Central America by narcotics trafficking. As Colombia and Mexico intensified their battles against drug cartels, the traffickers began operating in poorer countries with weaker law enforcement—El Salvador, Guatemala and, particularly, Honduras. Honduras' second largest city, San Pedro Sula, now has the world's highest homicide rate. Without the protection of effective law enforcement, young people from this region have been subjected, with their families, to extreme violence  including rape and murder—and often forced to join criminal gangs. Not surprisingly, when faced with such barbarism, the vulnerable flee to a place where police and the rule of law can protect them. They head to the United States.

The fate of these immigrants remains largely unresolved. Under U.S. law, unaccompanied minors entering from countries other than Canada and Mexico are not deported summarily but are permitted to stay until formal removal hearings can consider their immigration status. Adults with children are likewise generally permitted to stay pending resolution of asylum and other claims for relief. Our government's response to this inflow has been to focus on the facilities and resources needed to house the immigrants and transfer the unaccompanied children to the custody of relatives or family friends living in the United States. While the government has largely succeeded in addressing the immediate humanitarian problem caused by the migration, it has not provided the additional resources needed to apply our law on removal or asylum. Currently the adjudication process receives only 2% of resources dedicated to border patrol enforcement. Consequently, an enormous backlog of cases has developed, often delaying removal and asylum hearings for more than two years.

The government also has not provided these immigrants with legal representation needed to navigate our complicated immigration system. A relatively recent study found that 75% of represented children were granted the right to remain in the United States as compared to 15% of unrepresented children. Since these children are usually in the custody of adults who are themselves illegal and have little contact with legal counsel, it is not surprising that more than 60% of the unaccompanied minors do not show up at all for their removal hearing when the date finally does arrive. In that event, a deportation order is entered by default, but, as the immigrant community knows, such orders are generally not enforced. Thus, tens of thousands of young immigrants seeking to escape their lawless countries have become lawless in the United States.

To help address this problem, Jones Day has, since July of 2014, assigned more than 150 lawyers (roughly the equivalent of a mid-sized law firm) to represent unaccompanied children and mothers in various legal proceedings. We are currently counsel in more than 100 cases, many involving multiple immigrant clients. It is an investment of millions of dollars of time and expense that, as the largest law firm in the United States, we are fortunate to be able to contribute.  Our clients, the poorest of the poor, are stunned when they finally understand that we do not work for the government but are instead working for them. And they are even more stunned, and profoundly grateful, when our lawyers actually show up, returning day after day to marshal evidence, prepare arguments, and advocate on their behalf. While we are the most active law firm on this matter, our efforts are a proverbial drop in the bucket.

Respect for the rule of law and its processes has been a crucial element in our country's successes and a compelling example for countries with little or no rule of law. Yet tens of thousands of these children and mothers remain unrepresented or in an indefinite legal limbo. Though the media and political actors have moved on, a small group of dedicated but overwhelmed religious organizations and pro bono lawyers are left to do what they can for this dispossessed population as acts of charity.

Since the violent disruption of these Central American societies is a result of the unrelenting U.S. demand for illegal drugs, we bear a particular responsibility for these consequences. Our government—and the legal profession—should at least assure that these immigrants are afforded the rights they have been given under our law.

An edited version of this article with the title "Unaccompanied migrant children deserve legal representation" ran in the Houston Chronicle on October 6, 2015.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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