The Trump administration is failing to fund legal services for detained immigrant children ― some under 5 years old ― in three shelters, HuffPost has learned. That violates federal law and could have life-threatening consequences for the minors, immigration lawyers say.
In July, HuffPost reported that the administration was not providing legal services to children in a now-closed temporary facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, which held a few hundred immigrants, even though federal law and a court settlement require the government to inform detained migrant kids of their legal rights and to ensure access to counsel “to the greatest extent practicable.” The information was first reported by Reveal.
At the time, the government acknowledged that it was not paying for legal aid in the shelter, which a spokesperson chalked up to budgetary issues that would soon be resolved.
The government now claims it is funding legal aid for immigrant minors in all shelters. But multiple legal aid attorneys told HuffPost that’s not true. These lawyers said they are working for free, without the government money they usually receive for their services.
Legal service organizations confirmed that the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for sheltering kids detained at the border without their parents, is not paying for legal aid in two recently opened shelters. One in Phoenix houses children under 5 years old, and another in Modesto, California, holds teenage mothers and their children. There is also no legal service contract in place for a separate shelter in Phoenix that is being reopened and is expected to start detaining up to 420 children as early as next week, according to Golden McCarthy, the children’s program director at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which provides aid to detained children in Arizona.
Without legal help, immigrant kids must go through complex legal proceedings on their own and may more easily be deported back to violent situations in their home countries.
“The stakes are literally life and death,” said Jennifer Podkul, an interim vice president at Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), which provides services to the Modesto shelter. “If a kid does not know how to tell their story to an adjudicator, our government runs the risk of sending a child back to their death.”
But in a statement to HuffPost, an Office of Refugee Resettlement spokesperson denied that there was an issue with the contracts and said the government is now providing funding for legal services in all shelters.
“ORR has completed the necessary contractual modifications in assuring the continuity of holistic legal services to all UAC [unaccompanied alien children] in ORR care provider programs,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “The availability and assignment of local providers at ORR care provider programs is currently the contractual responsibility of Vera.”
“Vera” is the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research organization that has six regional contracts with the government under which it then subcontracts with legal service providers to visit the shelters.
A representative from that organization told HuffPost, “Any statement that Vera has withheld services we are allowed to provide, or failed to advocate for additional services where they are needed, is simply false.”
In the absence of government funding, lawyers have been visiting the shelters pro bono to make sure detained children know their rights, understand what to expect in immigration court and receive at least some legal representation. An unaccompanied child with legal representation is four times more likely to be granted status in the U.S. than one without, according to an analysis of court data by Syracuse University.
Legal aid lawyers said that since June they have received no warning from ORR before a new shelter opens. McCarthy only found out the Phoenix center was being reopened in early September, she said, when she received an email from an employee of Southwest Key, the nonprofit operator for the shelter. McCarthy’s team is now scrambling to come up with a plan to service the anticipated hundreds of children on a pro bono basis.
Children in detention centers usually receive a date to show up in immigration court, where they have to answer basic questions about themselves, their families and the legal relief they are seeking. McCarthy said her staff recently helped a 4-year-old girl tell the judge difficult information about her family and how she wanted to be reunited with her sister ― whose whereabouts she didn’t know ― and return to Central America.
Without her organization’s help, McCarthy said the 4-year-old would have been in court alone, struggling to navigate a legal system too complicated for most adults to grasp.
“It’s really on the immigrant typically to explain their case,” she said, “and when you have a client who is 4 years old, they truly cannot explain or defend themselves.”
If children miss their initial court hearing, they are given a deportation order to leave the country. But without lawyers visiting the shelters, kids might not be aware of how the process works and the consequences of being absent.
“How will that 15-year-old child know she has to attend court or will be deported?” said Katie Annand, a managing attorney at KIND’s San Francisco and Fresno, California, offices. “She hasn’t been to law school and has had no preparation session on the immigration court process.”
Some immigration advocates told HuffPost they saw the lack of legal aid funding as part of a larger attempt to strip immigrants of their basic rights.
“Our government is engaged in premeditated, deliberate acts of cruelty against children,” said Jonathan Ryan, the executive director at the migrant advocacy and legal aid group Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education (RAICES). “I don’t think one has to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that the government is attempting to systematically dismantle every framework of support for any immigrant in this country.”
KIND and the Florence Project are trying to meet the children’s needs in Modesto and Phoenix, but it’s a struggle without additional government funding. It can take KIND’s lawyers an entire day to travel to and from the Modesto shelter, where the organization is providing pro bono services, and KIND lacks the money to hire additional staff, Annand said. They alternate trips to the shelter with lawyers from another legal service organization to make the work more manageable, but it’s not a permanent solution, especially if the number of detained kids grows.
In Phoenix, McCarthy said the Florence Project would ideally hire a full-time team of six people to service a shelter with hundreds of kids, but that’s not possible without government funding. Instead, she will have to ask existing staff to take on the additional work, which again is not a sustainable solution.
McCarthy hopes the government will come through with a contract, but worries about the long-term consequences if ORR does not fund legal aid.
“I think that children will inevitably go into court by themselves,” she said. “If a child doesn’t have parents or a legal guardian moving through the process with them, then they are really doing it on their own. That’s concerning.”