Wednesday, October 17, 2018
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Pro-Bono Lawyers Aid Immigrant Children Facing U.S. Deportation Proceedings

Interview with Jennifer Podkul, policy director with Kids in Need of Defense, KIND, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children are being held in detention in by the U.S. government, with many being transferred to refugee tent camp in the middle of the Texas desert.
Many children are eligible for relief, but have almost no chance of success without a lawyer. Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, is a national organization whose mission is to provide pro bono attorneys to immigrant children in deportation proceedings. KIND trains these lawyers – who often come from the corporate world – and then matches attorneys to children. Fewer than half of the children in detention have attorneys when they appear in court.  As of mid-September some 12,800 immigrant children were being held in the custody of the Health and Human Services Department.
The backlog that has developed in moving these children through the legal process is in part the result of potential sponsors being afraid to come forward for fear of being deported themselves and the government’s decision to prioritize the cases of children the Trump administration separated from their families at the border earlier this year. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Jennifer Podkul, policy director with KIND. Here, she explains the role her organization plays in children’s deportation cases and recent developments in the plight of immigrant youth.

JENNIFER PODKUL: Every person who the government decides they want to remove from the country is put into removal proceedings or deportation proceedings. The burden is on the immigrant themselves to prove why they have a right to stay here. So they have to make their own case. So they have to have an understanding of U.S. immigration law to understand why they would have some sort of right to be here. Is it because they actually did have some kind of visa? Is it because they’re asking for humanitarian protection and they want to make an application for humanitarian protection? So it’s absurd to think that somebody, first of all who doesn’t speak English, let alone have an understanding of U.S. law, let alone have an understanding of U.S. immigration law, would be able to make a case for themselves in court without a lawyer. And it’s even more absurd when you think about a young child.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So when they are represented by attorneys, how do these kids fare?

JENNIFER PODKUL: Most of the kids we’re representing – almost all of them – are applying for some sort of humanitarian protection, meaning they either suffered harm in their own country, or they would suffer harm if they had to go back. And so that could be an application for asylum; that could be an application for special immigrant juvenile status, which is a special visa given to children who are abused, abandoned or neglected, and a judge has determined it’s not in their best interest to go back to their country. There’s something called a trafficking visa, so for a child who’s been a victim of human trafficking, they might be eligible for a special visa. So these forms of relief are granted to children, and if they win their case, they are then eligible to apply for what’s referred to as a “green card” so they could stay and live and work in the U.S. And I will tell you that when KIND is able to screen cases – make the determination about who we think might qualify and who we think might be better off if they return to their home country – when we are able to screen a case and represent a child to the end of their case, we have an incredibly high success rate.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How high is it?

JENNIFER PODKUL: So, if we’re able to screen the case and represent the child through the end of their case, It’s generally been over 90 percent of the cases we’ve been successful with.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jennifer Podkul, I’m curious, you said these cases are hard to prove, and I imagine these kids come with little or no documentation, so how do you have such a high success rate?

JENNIFER PODKUL: It’s amazing, these attorneys – especially the pro bono attorneys – the amount of resources they put into these cases is really amazing. It depends what kind of application the child is applying for. If they’re applying for asylum there’s a lot of research that goes into what’s happening in the home country and trying to corroborate what the child said about what happened. Experts can provide testimony. Sometimes for children when they’re applying for special juvenile status if they were abused, abandoned or neglected, you go to state court first, and a family court judge makes those determinations. Sometimes if children are applying for a visa, they may be able to seek assistance from their consular representative from their country of origin, who could help provide documentation or corroborating evidence as well, so it depends what kind of application a child is making.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What can you tell us about the expanded detention center for unaccompanied immigrant children in the desert at Tornillo in south Texas?

JENNIFER PODKUL: So, the government is running Tornillo as an emergency overflow shelter for kids, and it’s the Office of Refugee Resettlement that’s in charge of providing care and custody to unaccompanied children until they can find a sponsor in the U.S. who is willing to care for them while they go through their court process. And what’s happening in Tornillo is the government has implemented some policies that is making it harder for children to reunify with a sponsor. So kids are really backing up in the system, in this detention system. So ORR has had to resort to opening what they’re referring to as this emergency facility, Tornillo. It has more than 3,000 beds, so over 3,000 children can be housed there, and they’re holding children between the ages of 13 and 17, both boys and girls, there. But because it’s an emergency shelter it’s not licensed by the state, and ORR is making lower requirements for what services they’re providing to children, so there’s been limited access to legal counsel. There’s been little or no educational services provided, so we’re very worried about the government relying on, first of all, such a huge facility and the conditions of the detention.

And it’s not because we’re seeing a huge influx of children arriving at our border. You know in 2014, we saw a large number of children arrive, and it took the government by surprise, and so they relied on emergency shelters then.

We’re not in that situation now. We’re not surprised by the number of arrivals of unaccompanied children right now. The government’s own policies are frustrating the release of kids, so you have this inflated number of kids in detention, and so the government’s opening this facility where they’re housing children in tents. And to be quite frank, it looks like a refugee camp; they’re using tents in the middle of the desert. It looks like we’re in a crisis right now where there’s some sort of emergency on our border where we’re being overrun. And we’re absolutely not. You know, that’s a false narrative.

For more information on Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, visit supportkind.org.

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