Pro Bono Attorneys Making Difference to Child Migrants

October 23, 2014

Op-Ed by Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel of Microsoft Corp., is co-chairman of the board of directors for Kids in Need of Defense.

Lawyers can take tremendous pride in the tradition of pro bono, through which we volunteer our time and expertise to represent the disenfranchised on a range of social justice issues. Take, for instance, the legal-services needs for unaccompanied child migrants, which urgently has our attention. These uniquely vulnerable kids have often faced hardship and danger at home and on their journey to the U.S. With the U.S. government fast-tracking their cases, they deserve to have the best representation before our courts. In nearly every case, this representation has come from lawyers providing pro bono services.

As children fled Central America in extraordinary numbers over the spring and summer, Texas became the epicenter of this surge. Harris County has the largest population of unaccompanied children in the country. This year, over 3,000 children are facing deportation proceedings in Houston immigration courts.

The majority are fleeing brutal gang and narcoviolence, of which children are increasingly the targets. Organized criminal elements control communities and force children to join their ranks. Refusal results in threats to the lives and safety of the child. Honduras has the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala ranking fourth and fifth. Their governments are unable to control the violence, leaving nowhere for children to turn for protection.

Ana’s story is shared by many others. She fled Guatemala to escape from a gang member who was physically abusing her. He forced her to move in with him, threatening to kill her grandmother if she didn’t. He at one point tore up her clothes with his machete so that she could not escape. He raped her himself and then allowed other men to rape her. After months in captivity, she escaped, pregnant and alone.

Simply put, the United States has a refugee crisis unfolding on our doorstep. Refugees are people who fear persecution from which their governments are unable or unwilling to protect them. The United Nations has found that 58 percent of these children are potentially eligible for international protection. We therefore should not be surprised that children are risking their lives and making the dangerous trip to the U.S. That’s what refugees do. It is a calculated choice — face almost certain death in their home communities or take the chance that they will survive the journey and find safety in the U.S.

While the number of children arriving at the border has dropped recently, what was a border crisis has become a due-process crisis. Every day, hundreds of children like Ana are appearing in immigration courts across the country and in Texas. Over 70 percent do not have attorneys to represent them before a judge and against a government attorney who is arguing for the child’s deportation. The difference that legal counsel makes is stark. Children who are represented in their proceedings are five times more likely to be granted protection from deportation. The possible consequences of deportation are also stark. The Los Angeles Times reported that five children who were deported to Honduras this summer were murdered by the gangs that originally threatened them.

To make matters worse, children’s cases are now expedited and placed at the top of the court dockets even before those cases of adults who have for years been unlawfully in the U.S. Children who were vulnerable in their home countries, vulnerable during the harrowing trek to the U.S., are now ironically even vulnerable in the U.S. court system where their cases are so fast-tracked, they are at even greater risk of not finding a volunteer lawyer in time to help them prepare their cases.

Pro bono attorneys are the lifelines for these children, helping them to tell their story and giving them a fair chance at accessing the protection available under our laws. As we mark Pro Bono Week by reflecting on the need for effective counsel, regardless of a person’s social or financial standing, there is no question that Houston can rise to the occasion and support real due process for these children. Many members of Houston’s legal community have already stepped up to represent these children, showing their compassion and commitment to protecting the most vulnerable.

At the same time, the federal government should allow children sufficient time to find volunteer lawyers and to prepare their cases. This is a great way to encourage the private sector to fill this critical legal services gap, which in turn preserves children’s access to due process and fundamental fairness. This is who we are as a nation and as Americans.