Unaccompanied children at border too young to stand on their own need lawyers to stand before a judge

December 12, 2019

Against the backdrop of record-high numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the nation’s southwest border and Trump administration policies that restrict many paths to protection for children seeking safety in the United States, nearly 200 attorneys, social workers, child welfare experts and other practitioners from across the country gathered in Houston this week. They’re seeking to identify ways to ensure unaccompanied children on the move get the legal services and support they deserve.

The second biannual meeting of its kind, this week’s Unaccompanied Children’s Conference in Houston — cohosted by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and the American Bar Association — will empower participants to protect the statutory legal rights of children seeking safety in the United States. That work is the foundation of KIND’s mission and shapes the partnerships our organization has forged with pro bono attorneys in Houston and 11 other sites throughout the nation. While the children we serve arrive in the United States alone and often terrified, KIND and our pro bono attorney partners safeguard their right to seek safety in the United States and give these children hope that their claims will be reviewed fairly.

That’s never been harder, and the process they face is daunting. From the administration’s new limitations on asylum, to navigating cases of children rendered unaccompanied as a result of family separation, to addressing the needs of a growing number of very young children, KIND and its pro bono partners are being forced to develop real-time strategies that deal with unprecedented legal challenges and figure out how to best serve our increasingly vulnerable clients.

I have been working to help unaccompanied children for 30 years and I never thought I would be discussing with my team how to handle our growing caseload of babies and toddlers. We recently had a 6-month-old client who was separated from his mother at 4 months old. Before the child was linked to KIND, he had been expected to appear in court and was not appointed an attorney. This child could not even stand on his own let alone stand before a judge to articulate a defense against removal. This child and others just like him face an immigration system that — by cruel design — is now increasingly stacked against them. These new policies mean that the United States is likely to send many more children home to grave harm or even death.

Many of our young clients came here to seek haven from the gangs and narco-traffickers that are systematically taking control of countless communities in Central America, a breakdown in the rule of law that the governments in the region are too weak or corrupt to control. The real fear that they could be sent back to this violence compounds the trauma they have already suffered as a result of their often-perilous journey to the United States. Worse yet, new barriers that are creating large backlogs in the U.S. immigration system mean that these cases are likely to linger on for many years and leave these kids living in limbo. This instability is harmful to the children and damaging to our immigration system. It’s also not who we are as a nation.

This week’s conference in Houston, which runs through Friday, is more than a gathering for continued legal education and policy discussions. It’s a time to reflect on the dire circumstances unaccompanied children at the border face and the role each of us must play to protect their legally required rights. In Houston, firms and attorneys across the city are already joining in that effort. We sincerely appreciate their unwavering commitment to pro bono service, and we encourage others to join them in the hard work to address this crisis.

Unaccompanied children at the border are under attack and the hurdles they face seem to be getting higher each day, but that has not deterred us from this fight. Instead it has made us come together in Houston and beyond. It has created an outpouring of volunteer support and opportunities and it has united us in efforts to support these children and uphold the true values of the United States. Here, we protect children, wherever they were born.

Young is president of Kids in Need of Defense,