New American Story Project

Interview

A Refugee Crisis

Wendy Young
President, Kids In Need of Defense (KIND)

US immigration law allows individuals who are appearing in immigration court the privilege of counsel, but at no expense to the government. What this has meant is that many people appear in immigration court without an attorney by their side to help them. You can imagine how challenging it is to appear in a formal courtroom setting before a robed immigration judge, with a trial attorney from the Department of Homeland Security who’s an expert in immigration law and who’s arguing for your deportation, particularly for unaccompanied children, who are children under the age of 18.

Children who are represented by an attorney, however, are 5 times more likely to be granted some form of protection in the United States. In the Central American situation, this is quite critical because, of course, most of these children are fleeing severe violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They’re literally running for their lives.

These are children who don’t speak English, who very often are traumatized by the experiences they’ve had in their home country and during their flight and even in the U.S., who don’t understand U.S. immigration law, and who very often come from countries where they’re frightened of government authority. So, the attorney can mean the difference between life or death for some very young children.

I’ve been in immigration court and seen a five-year-old appear before an immigration judge with no attorney with her, and she could barely see over the microphone. The judge tried to ask her questions, she was sitting there with her doll under her arm, and she looked at him and her eyes just got bigger and bigger. She was terrified.

People are presenting themselves to U.S. Border Patrol at our border and saying, “I need safety, I need help.” This should be viewed as a good thing because that means people are in the system. We know where they are, we can adjudicate their cases, hopefully fairly, and reach a true determination as to whether they should be allowed to remain in the United States or can go home safely. There is some order to this flow as a result.

But we’ve seen these children frankly be vilified by certain members of Congress. And, I have to say, even the [Obama] Administration was sending signals that it would prefer to be able to turn these children away at the border, rather than allow them access to the U.S. immigration system to see if they have a real reason for being here and a need for protection.

We Have a Humanitarian Crisis

I think there’s kind of a complicated range of reasons why this issue has become controversial. I think first is timing: we’re currently in an election cycle, and the immigration issue is very high on the agenda and very controversial and increasingly, I believe, becoming more and more emotional. Secondly, this also happened around the time that many in Washington have been trying to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. I think, when looking at the Central American crisis, that that made it politically complicated because there was a perception that the border was out of control. The border is not out of control—the border is more regulated than it ever was before: there are more border patrol agents, there’s greater use of technology and equipment to control the flow of individuals across our border. In fact, in the past few years, we’ve deported more people than ever in our history.

The flow of children and families from Central America is driven largely by the violence in that region: this is a refugee crisis, not an immigration issue. So there was a mixing, if you will, of apples and oranges: immigration reform, very much needed, with the refugee crisis. These issues were conflated, unfortunately.

We have a humanitarian crisis occurring in Central America, on our back doorstep. There is a legal obligation under our treaty obligations to provide refugees and asylum-seekers with protection, and I believe there’s a very strong moral and ethical obligation as well. If one of our children were being attacked viciously by gangs and they could not turn to police in the United States for protection, if they felt that they had to cross that border to access Mexico, or Guatemala, or some other country, I believe every one of us would want our children to be able to do that.

Unaccompanied children from Central America view the United States as a beacon of hope, a country of safety, a country that protects human rights. Some of them have family members who are already here and for children, of course, they’re going to go where their families are, because that, first and foremost, should be the first place of protection for children. And, it’s not illegal to seek asylum in the United States.

The Top of the Dockets

In July 2014, the [Obama] Administration made the decision to prioritize the adjudication of children’s asylum claims in the immigration court system. They ranked recent arrivals, which basically meant individuals from Central America, including unaccompanied children, as the top priority for adjudication in the courts, and they mandated that the first hearing had to occur within 21 days of the hearing notice being issued. So, literally, the Administration put children at the top of the dockets, at the same prioritization level as suspected terrorists and convicted felons!

We’ve never seen that happen before and, unfortunately, it also failed to acknowledge that children in particular, when they’re going through these very complicated proceedings, need time. They need to be able to find a lawyer, they need to be able to develop trust with that lawyer, they need to feel comfortable sharing their experiences and understanding the system.

There are 475,000 cases [as of 3/3/2016] backlogged in the immigration courts. One of our attorneys reported yesterday that his firm had a case put on the docket for 2021! That tells you how far behind they are.

One of the things that we absolutely have to deal with as a country is resourcing the immigration courts, and increasing the number of immigration judges that are in place. It’s fundamental to due process. Not only is it bad for individuals who are trying to make their case for protection and move from a state of legal limbo into status, it’s also bad for the integrity of the court system.

Don't Come!

The solution here for people who have left their home country is to provide them fair access to the U.S. asylum system. Instead, we’ve seen the [Obama] Administration ramp up detention. We’ve seen them fast-track the adjudication of children’s cases in the immigration courts. We’ve seen them do video campaigns in the sending-countries telling people, “Don’t Come!” We’ve seen them, literally, show up at people’s houses, take people into custody, and deport them to send a message back to those that haven’t fled yet: “Don’t bother coming, ‘cause we’re going to send you home.” To me, this is really shameful behavior from the United States, and I’m disappointed to see this Administration engage in those efforts.

In Central America what we have is violence that’s generated by gangs and narco-traffickers, which are very much interconnected. These are international criminal cartels which are very specifically targeting children in Central America. And very often these gangs know when these children come back, because there is a network there and word gets out. And so they will target the child in order to punish them.

We had a very tragic case recently of a young girl who was granted asylum after being held as a sex slave by one of the gangs. She managed to escape, she made it to the United States, she was granted asylum, and the gangs retaliated against her young brother and murdered him. You can imagine how that poor girl feels. That’s El Salvador right now.

What Do We Stand For?

This is a regional crisis, this is not just a U.S. border crisis. It’s really trying to help people who are facing some of the most horrific abuses around the world through no fault of their own. They’re getting caught in the crossfire of armed conflict, gang violence, terrorism. And, to me, if the United States does not extend protection and a helping hand to these individuals, we’re maligning the very principles upon which this country was founded. And I think we should take it as the highest compliment that people want to come to the United States, that they do view us as a beacon of hope and safety and freedom – of democracy. What a wonderful reputation to have. And if we can’t extend that kind of welcome to immigrants and refugees, what do we stand for?

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