Plight of Children is Lost in Immigration Debate

May 17, 2018

As a pro bono immigration attorney for children immigrants and refugees over the past five years in Houston, I am struck by how little the fear-mongering and mischaracterizations of people from Central America seeking safety, like those traveling in the recent caravan of refugees from Central America, resonates with reality.

When the caravan first made news a few weeks ago, I was preparing for a hearing with a 9-year-old boy from Mexico whose only family lives in the United States. The boy’s father had been murdered by drug cartels, his uncles and grandfather had received death threats, and his mother was told that she and her son would be killed if they returned to their village.

Through this case, and many others, I have learned there is a humanitarian and moral crisis not far from this city — children fleeing violence and severe abuse in Central America and Mexico, from which their governments cannot protect them.

The violence in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and some states in Mexico is far worse than many in the United States realize. According to reports by the U.S. State Department released earlier this year, Honduras and El Salvador have among the highest murder rates in the world. Last year was the deadliest year in Mexico since recording began 20 years ago. More women and girls are murdered in Central America, per capita, than most places in the world.

Children are at the forefront of this violence. When parents or other caregivers are murdered, children are left without caregivers. Gangs target young boys and girls who are often left a choice: pledge your life and allegiance to the gang or risk death for you and family members.

Another of my clients is a 9-year-old girl from Honduras. After her father was murdered, she, her first cousin and her aunt were given 24 hours to flee their country. The girl’s only adult relative who is not fleeing gang violence lives in the United States.

Yet another of my clients is a 15-year-old boy from Guatemala who was threatened with death if he returned to school, home or his relatives. The other males in his family had either fled, because of death threats, or been killed. His only adult relative is an older sister in the United States.

These stories are not unique; in fact, they are typical, average facts for any attorney representing unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children from Central America and Mexico.

Basic protections for these children are provided for in a 2008 human trafficking law that received unanimous bipartisan support. The Trump administration is now calling these core protections, “loopholes.” In reality, these very limited provisions simply help these children refugees access our immigration system.

Not every child prevails in this system; far from it. But our basic protections at least give them a meaningful opportunity to present the factual and legal issues necessary to present a claim for U.S. protection. It also gives them hope for a better life and safety but only if the system is working.

“Working” means having an attorney. Without representation, a child refugee struggles to access the law and will not receive a fair hearing. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Clearinghouse, children without attorneys only have a 15 percent chance of staying in the United States, while 3 out of 4 children with attorneys are allowed to remain.

Of course, the attorney is an advocate for children refugees only within the limits for facts and the governing law. As officers of the court, we have an ethical and professional obligation to only present arguments that are based on facts and law.

Sadly, tens of thousands of children refugees do not have an attorney to help them access their basic protections.

Fortunately, there is a solution: the “Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2018,” a bill introduced in Congress to ensure that unaccompanied children have access to counsel.

For the many women and children with no place safe to go, the United States remains a beacon of hope. As difficult as our problems are, and they are not trivial, they pale in comparison to our neighbors fleeing violence, death threats and murder.

The children fleeing from harm in Central America and Mexico are, in every sense of the word, refugees seeking asylum in a place of opportunity and relative safety. We can help them, and we should to the extent our laws allow.

This is the United States I was reared to believe in, and I still do.

Perry is a litigation partner in the Houston office of global law firm Reed Smith. He also serves pro bono on the Houston Advisory Committee of Kids in Need of Defense, a national organization providing legal aid for unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children.