‘If You’re Like Me, You Can’t Sit By. This Is America.’

August 20, 2019

Below is an excerpt from the full article referencing KIND, you can read the entire piece via The New York Times

Nolberto’s case shows how much a lawyer can matter. He lived in Mixco, just outside Guatemala City, in a neighborhood controlled by MS-13.

His uncle was the pastor of a small evangelical church that met in the house where Nolberto lived. Nolberto loved the church. He joined a troop of children who performed Christian skits for the neighborhood and uploaded them on YouTube. Even before he was 10, he preached to other children and asked them not to join a gang.

MS-13 tormented the congregation and repeatedly threatened to kill Nolberto if he didn’t sell drugs for them. (Is it any wonder people want to leave? Yet the Trump administration recently designated Guatemala a “safe third country,” meaning that any immigrant to the United States who passed through Guatemala must seek asylum there first. The administration is pursuing similar arrangements with Honduras and El Salvador.)

When Nolberto was 14, his family realized they had to get him out. They paid a member of the congregation to take him to the boy’s father, who lived — undocumented — in the Los Angeles area.

Along the route, Nolberto’s story became even more of a nightmare. The man hired by his uncle turned him over to another. Nolberto said in a phone interview that he was twice kidnapped for weeks and his father was extorted for money — once in Mexico and once in Texas.

Four months after leaving Guatemala, Nolberto reached his frantic father. In California, he went to high school and attended church without fear for the first time.

He was given a court date and a list of groups that provide free lawyers. He called down the list and finally got one through Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), a national organization that has trained and supports some 40,000 pro bono lawyers.

“I would have gone to court by myself,” Nolberto said. “But I didn’t know what to apply for, how to make a case, or how to present it to the court.” Even after all he’d been through, the thought was terrifying. “They’re going to define if you stay or go home, and you could die at home,” he said. “Imagine if you don’t have help.”

KIND connected him to Linda Dakin-Grimm, a volunteer who was a corporate trial lawyer at Milbank, a large firm, in her day job.

It is difficult for anyone to recount the story of the worst thing that he or she has ever experienced, and that is particularly so for a child, especially one likely to be traumatized. “It can take a long time to get their story, information relevant to their claim,” said Kennji Kizuka, a senior research and policy analyst for refugee protection at Human Rights First. “Building up that trust is difficult.”

Ms. Dakin-Grimm said that Nolberto didn’t even mention his religion in their first few meetings.

Unaccompanied children can win residency in several ways. Many apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which requires filing a lawsuit in state court.

The other major avenue is the famous one: asking for asylum.

“Most people have the idea that it’s enough if I just tell you my tale of woe: ‘I come from a really, really, dangerous place and I was suffering a lot.’ It just doesn’t work that way,” Ms. Dakin-Grimm said.

To get asylum, you must show you were persecuted because you were a member of a specific group, such as a religious group. And you have to show that the government you have fled can’t or won’t do its job to protect you.

Ms. Dakin-Grimm argued that Nolberto was persecuted because of his religious affiliation, and that the state did nothing. His uncle, the pastor, testified that threats against the church were so constant and terrifying that he had a stroke. Nolberto’s family also produced copies of letters they had written to the police requesting help — which never came. Ms. Dakin-Grimm supervised a group of Milbank lawyers who gathered evidence that nowhere in Guatemala was safe for him.

In March 2016, Nolberto won asylum. He has just graduated from high school and is about to take the entrance exam for the United States Marines.

Without a lawyer, even children with a good case get sent back. With a lawyer, they don’t. The Transactions Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University tracks immigration cases nationwide. Since 2005 in New York, 87 percent of unaccompanied children without a lawyer were deported, while only 24 percent of children with lawyers were.

Read the full article via The New York Times.