As the Central American Kids Flooding Texas Get Younger, Lawyers Struggle to Help Them

A few months ago, just south of the Texas-Mexico border, a 17-year-old girl was cautiously making her way to the Rio Grande river and the American desert beyond. In her arms she carried her 1-year-old daughter. The two made it across, but, like most of the South American women and children flooding across the border of late, they didn't get very far before being picked up by Border Patrol. They didn't intend to.

The young mother quickly had her information taken down by immigration officials, and was surprised to learn that they compiled a separate file for her baby. Six months later, that little girl has a charging document, complete with a photograph and fingerprints, in the Texas judicial system. At just 18 months old, she awaits her court date in Dallas.

Such is the strange legal world surrounding the immigration process for unaccompanied children, especially the kids grade-school age and younger. As we've reported recently, the United States, with immigration from Mexico slowing, is seeing a surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where poverty and gang violence is sending young people fleeing north. Most are arriving in Texas, and many of the children come with children of their own.

The young mom has legal relief, under a provision for kids whose parents have either abandoned them or died. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers will likely use their so-called "prosecutorial discretion" to drop the baby's case. Nonetheless, both will wade into the slow and messy labyrinth of the United States immigration legal system.

Melissa Weaver, an attorney for the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, handles these kinds of cases. When a child arrives and can't be placed with family, she is sent to a shelter in Fort Worth that is contracted out by the federal Office of Refugees and Resettlement. Once they arrive, Weaver says, Human Rights Initiative receives a referral. Weaver, who handles kids' cases for the group, meets with the child, tries to determine if she has a legal case to stay in the United States and, if so, goes about defending her in court.

The younger the child, the harder it is to extract her personal narrative, Weaver says. Weaver has two small children of her own, which is perhaps why she's so good at getting her clients talking. It's no easy task. Some are barely learning to speak in Spanish and don't speak a word of English. Between translating legal jargon to child-friendly language, and doing so in a different language, it's a daunting task just to explain the legal process, let alone wade into it.

And immigration legal professionals across the country are reporting increasingly younger kids. Stacy Jones, an attorney for the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which places pro bono lawyers, says she is seeing more and more kids whose ages are in the single digits.

"About once a week I go through the [client] referrals, and we can definitely tell that they're younger. It used to be mostly 16- and 17-year-olds, but more recently I've been seeing 8-, 9-, 12-year-olds." Jones says. Boys generally make up the bulk of unaccompanied children, but recently Jones has seen a spike in unaccompanied girls. She's unsure why.

Whatever their gender, they need lawyers, and the recent surge underscores the pressing need for non-immigration lawyers willing to work for free, Jones says. As immigration courts do not have public defenders available, immigrant kids often rely on volunteer attorneys to handle their cases. Therein lies the challenge in finding a miracle attorney who will be able to use child-friendly language, cultivate a trusting relationship, learn a child's case history and have a bit of Spanish language skills -- all to brave a legal system that's disorganized, overburdened and sometimes hostile.

"It's tough. You need to get their whole story," Jones says. "The younger a child is, the less able they are to articulate what happened to them or why they came to the U.S., and the younger they are, they're likely not traveling with a ton of documents. Obviously when you're representing a child you try to to build a relationship and trust with them. ... All of these kids have gone through terribly traumatic situations, and you need to build this relationship to be able to talk about very troubling things."

Weaver tells me about one little girl, 5, from Honduras. "Her aunt took her all the way to the border and then was like, OK, start running toward the border and someone will catch you," Weaver says. "That was their big plan. ... It's very dangerous."

Another of Weaver's young clients, a 6-year-old girl, was picked up by Border Patrol and was eventually transferred to the Fort Worth shelter. Weaver set about interviewing the girl, trying to learn as much as possible about her background in Central America, where kids increasingly face family violence, sexual predators and drug-related gang violence. But the interview was going nowhere, and without the girl's story Weaver would have little case to make. Then, there was a breakthrough.

"We started asking questions about if anyone drank in the house, because you know, even pretty young kids pick up that," says Weaver, who eventually reunited the girl with family in another state. "Toward the end we just happened to ask the one question that triggered this whole telling of a story. And that changed everything."

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Emily Mathis