Minors need link to services

migrants climbing on freight trainA young migrant boy is hoisted onto a freight car as Central Americans board a northbound train in Ixtepec, Mexico, on July 12. The number of unaccompanied minors detained on the U.S. border has more than tripled since 2011. Children are said to be crossing with their parents in rising numbers as well. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Social workers can be instrumental in helping unaccompanied, undocumented minors find legal representation and other services once they cross the border into the United States.

Tens of thousands of minors have arrived at the U.S. border within the last few months, fleeing from extreme violence and turmoil in their countries. They are predominantly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The children are seeking refuge in the U.S. and many are trying to connect with family members already living here.

All of the minors who come in contact with U.S. immigration authorities are processed for deportation proceedings, says Elizabeth Camarena, associate director of legal programs at Casa Cornelia Law Center in San Diego.

According to a report in the Syracuse University Transactional Clearinghouse, about 40 percent of juveniles appear at immigration court without an attorney.

Camarena says social workers can help these children find pro bono legal services so they can have an attorney represent them in court. The children do have a legal right to attorney representation, although they have to provide it for themselves, she said.

“Immigration law is complex, and when a child is not represented by an attorney, it is extremely difficult for them to present evidence that they qualify for asylum,” she said. “Social workers have contacted me directly to make an appointment for a child, and they wait outside in the reception area. That is where I have seen that if it wasn’t for the social worker, the child wouldn’t be in my office or even know this kind of help is available.”

The process to appear in court starts with the child receiving a Notice to Appear before leaving their detention facility, where they go when they first enter the U.S., Camarena said.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Chief Counsel files the notice, and the immigration court with jurisdiction over the child’s place of residence initiates deportation proceedings.

“The court then issues a Notice of Hearing with a specific date and time to appear,” Camarena said. “Each child must present a defense to removal or ask to be allowed to return to his (or) her country of origin.”

She says social workers can also be instrumental in making sure these children make it to their court appointments on time. If they miss an appointment, they could be deported based on their absence.

“The nature of children is they are dependent on adults. If the adult in their life is not proactive, they are at the mercy of everyone around them,” she said. “This is where social workers become absolutely important. Having to show up at a certain time, come to this place, cancel an appointment, reschedule — these are concepts that are foreign to a child, but not to a social worker.”

Julie Gilbert Rosicky, executive director of International Social Service-U.S.A., says the court proceedings for these children can take months or even years to resolve. In the meantime, she says, they are still vulnerable children who need access to education, case management and a whole range of other social services. It’s a great opportunity to develop social work capacity at every point where the children are, she said.

“The next set of social work questions to ask is whether these children know the families they are being released to, do they need help with family adjustment, do they need help enrolling in school, and what are their other immediate needs?” she said. “They could have real issues adjusting to life here, and until their immigration situation is determined, their well-being needs attention.”

She says social workers who are helping these children should ask them if they have a lawyer and should be prepared to offer the necessary resources.

“We want to treat these children with our best child-welfare care and protection practices,” she said.

Rachel Prandini, an unaccompanied minor law fellow and attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, says an immigration judge decides each case. If an order of deportation is administered, it could mean that the child would be prohibited to enter the U.S. again anywhere from 10 to 20 years.

She says in her experience working with this population, most of the minors who arrive in the U.S. are fleeing a very bad situation at home, such as domestic violence, pressure to join a gang, extreme poverty and a whole range of other issues.

“For the most part, if they return, that’s the situation they’re going back to,” she said. “In cases where minors do have a social worker, it’s seen as very helpful to the ultimate success of cases.” ISS-USA will hold its fifth annual conference on Oct. 2. According to Gilbert Rosicky, the conference will explore youth immigration to the U.S., with experts speaking about undocumented children from an immigration perspective as well as an advocacy perspective.

Get information: ISS-USA Sponsored Events.