In an effort to escape violence and poverty, a growing number of children from across Latin America are showing up on the nation’s doorstep. Although kids have often trekked thousands of miles in making their way to the United States, thin resources means these special immigration cases don’t always get the care and attention needed. While organizations with the purpose of helping minor immigrants maneuver through the system do exist, a study by Syracuse University reports that more than half the 57,000 underage immigrants currently in the country will go through their immigration hearings without legal representation.
“If they don’t have an attorney, it’s up to them to understand this very complicated system,” a representative with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) told Latino USA.
Just as adult immigrants appearing in court are not guaranteed legal representation, children are likewise left to their own devices. Because these children don’t have the education or maturity to even have a true understanding of the immigration process, however, the problems within the immigration system are exponentially magnified.
Immigration officials are professionals trained to understand laws related to entering and exiting the country. During court appearances the attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the judge presiding over the immigration court are not expert on child welfare. Because these children were forced to escape their native home, however, immigration courts are forced to handle child welfare issues. USCRI works to provide lawyers at no cost to underage immigrants.
With a backlog of around 400,000 cases, minor immigrants awaiting appearance in immigration courts makes up only 11 percent of cases in the category, according to Syracuse University. This is the case even though underage immigrants in the court system reached a record high in April-June 2014, more than doubling over the six-month period of October 2013-March 2014.