To Avoid Reunification Breakdowns, Unaccompanied Children Benefit from Social Services and Legal Support

News outlets recently covered a story on dozens of unaccompanied children reported as missing in the Houston area after release to sponsors. Fortunately, according to the news, most of the youth have been located and determined as safe. The Houston Chronicle and the Houston Matters podcast both covered the story, including interviews with CILA’s Director, Dalia Castillo-Granados to provide contextual information from working in the field.

ORR’s Role

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services is tasked with the safety and care of unaccompanied children, as well as reunification with a suitable sponsor to care for the child while the child goes through removal proceedings in immigration court. The agency’s “Fact Sheet” on the Unaccompanied Children Program details more information about their work and the reunification process, including sponsor vetting.

Challenges After Reunification

While there is always a concern for the children’s well-being and potential trafficking, there are a variety of reasons that can explain the circumstances. Sometimes in similar situations, the youth may not be missing but instead their contact information changed. Some youth turn eighteen and become more independent of their sponsors. In some situations, sponsorship relationships break down and youth move to live with a different family member or family friend.

These situations sometimes occur because the children have lived apart from the sponsor for many years, so it can take time to bond and strengthen the relationship. Children migrate for multiple and often intersecting reasons, and sometimes those reasons include experiencing something traumatic such as loss of loved ones, homelessness, violence, gang-related violence or threats, sexual assault, amongst others. Many youth have experienced trauma in their home countries and on their journeys to the United States. The traumatic experiences may still impact them, and the youth often need help processing these experiences, which can be challenging on top of what they may be experiencing developmentally as children and teens. It is important that youth have the information and support that they need to thrive.

Need for Both Legal and Social Services Support

Due to the complex nature of the systems and issues unaccompanied children must face upon coming to the United States, both legal services and social services support are critical to helping migrant youth navigate the steps necessary to gain legal status and integrate into their new communities to seek protection and safety. CILA expanded in 2021 to include a social work program that capacity builds and supports social workers, attorneys, and legal staff working in children’s immigration law similarly to how CILA’s legal projects operate.

CILA’s Toolkit for Sponsors

CILA’s social work program recently issued a new resource relevant to this issue on Navigating Reunification Challenges: A Toolkit for Sponsors of Unaccompanied Minors, which is available in both English and Spanish. There can be challenges during the transition and process of a child or teen reunifying with a sponsor, so CILA developed this toolkit in August 2022 to provide information, practical tips and guidance, as well as activities to support sponsors through issues that might arise. Many sponsors and youth must navigate multiple systems such as health systems and school systems in addition to adjusting to having a new family life and the youth going through removal proceedings in immigration court. The toolkit provides guidance and information to assist on how to navigate these systems and more. CILA hopes the toolkit helps attorneys and legal staff working with families and that the toolkit will be shared with sponsors across the country to help them through this process and season in their life. Read CILA’s blog post on the toolkit to learn more about the resource.

Many Children Qualify for Relief & Need Access to Counsel

Many children have legal relief available that could offer them protection and more security in the United States. The only thing missing is knowledge and guidance to navigate the immigration law system from an attorney or DOJ accredited representative. Children are not appointed an attorney in immigration court. As a result, many children must appear in immigration court alone, and without a legal representative it can be difficult to access the relief that they often qualify for under the law. According to the Vera Institute of Justice’s report, Representation Matters: No Child Should Appear in Immigration Proceedings Alone, “only 64 percent of unaccompanied children in proceedings from FY 2005-2017 obtained counsel at some point during their cases.” The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), or immigration court’s statistics generated in July 2022 shows that there are over 88,000 unaccompanied children’s cases currently pending in immigration courts across the nation. Nonprofits across the country work with and represent unaccompanied children in their immigration matters, but the need is greater than what the nonprofit legal service providers can provide.

Pro Bono Attorneys Needed to Fill the Gap

The need is great, and there is a need for pro bono attorneys to help fill the representation gap. The Vera report also states that data from FY 2005-2017 shows that “[u]naccompanied children with legal representation at some point during their cases were more than seven times more likely than unrepresented unaccompanied children to receive an outcome that allowed them to remain in the United States” demonstrating the significant difference that representation can make in a case. In addition to making a difference in terms of results, representation can make a difference in other ways too. Reports have shown that there is a positive correlation between representation and appearance in court. Moreover, having a caring adult outside of the family is considered a protective factor in helping decrease the possibility for a child to have an adverse childhood experience (ACE) which can help their overall health, as explained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),

CILA hosts a platform on its website, Pro Bono Matters for Children Facing Deportation, featuring current cases in need of pro bono representation. Eighteen organizations from across the nation can post pro bono opportunities to CILA’s platform. There are currently 80 cases on the platform of children and youth who need representation, with opportunities across the nation including cases in Arizona, California, Colorado, DC, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Significantly, 26 current pro bono opportunities on CILA’s platform are in the Houston area. Data from ORR shows information on unaccompanied children released to sponsors by county, and the numbers show that 7,170 unaccompanied children were released to sponsors in Harris County in Houston so far in fiscal year 2022 (October 1, 2021 to July 31, 2022), the highest number for any county. Harris County is regularly a top county for released unaccompanied youth.

CILA encourages you to help spread the word about CILA’s platform to attorneys who are interested in pro bono representation of children in immigration matters. The platform is a user-friendly tool to see current cases that need pro bono representation. Many of the posting organizations offer training, resources, and support for pro bono attorneys. CILA also offers a variety of resources to support pro bono attorneys including the free CILA Pro Bono Guide: Working with Children and Youth in Immigration Cases and free recorded trainings on CILA’s website. For others who are not attorneys and want to learn more and get involved, CILA has resources and information on CILA’s Get Involved webpage. Next month in the last week of October, many will celebrate pro bono, but there is no time like the present to get involved to help a child in need. With the right social service and legal support, children can avoid further disruption and instead get on the path towards stability and success.