Lawyers from the biggest U.S. firms are stepping up to help the tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children fleeing violence of Central America.
Their work has ranged from assisting individual children in navigating the immigration system to lobbying state and federal governments. Some of the attorneys come from firms with little or no immigration expertise, and their efforts have transcended geographical and political divides.
“Our immigration docket has grown exponentially over the last few years within the firm because of demand from our lawyers,” Hillary Holmes, the head of the pro bono committee in the Houston office of Baker Botts LLP. New cases “just get snatched up,” she said.
“They tend to be handled by people with trial experience, but I’ve handled four and I’m a capital markets lawyer,” she said.
One case the firm waded into involved a 4-year-old from Honduras with an abusive father. The boy came to the U.S. “mostly on foot with a smuggler who left him under a tree,” said Keri Brown, an associate handling the case. The U.S. Border Patrol found him, and because the boy had his mother’s phone number, was able to reunite them.
The approximately 30 cases Kirkland & Ellis LLP has are also far removed from typical corporate matters.
“One young woman was kidnapped under terrible circumstances, another child escaped whose father was murdered,” according to partner Jeanne Cohn-Connor. “These children are not just escaping poverty -- they’re leaving pretty horrific situations.”
The time commitment isn’t huge. From the first meeting with a child to the culmination of the case, an attorney may spend 250 to 350 hours over a few years, Cohn-Connor said. That can include the training necessary to handle these matters.
Many of the lawyers received instruction and referrals from Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND. The organization, founded by Microsoft Corp. and actress Angelina Jolie to help “unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children in the United States,” works to pair children who have been vetted for strong cases with volunteer attorneys.
According to its national attorney coordinator for pro bono recruitment, Alice Fitzgerald, KIND has 24 legal staff members and works with more than 200 law firms, corporations and law schools.
“At this point, we have trained more than 7,000 attorneys,” she said.
Other organizations, including the Safe Passage Project, headed by Lenni Benson of New York Law School, are also providing training and clients to law firms.
Still, the firms don’t have the resources to provide representation for all of the thousands of children now in the U.S. and waiting to get through the immigration system.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 46,932 children came to the U.S. without parents or guardians from Oct. 1 to May 31. Of that group, 84 percent are teenagers, although children 12 or younger are the fastest-growing group of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, the study found. Most come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Unlike unaccompanied minors from Mexico, who face immediate deportation, the Central American children can seek asylum or what’s known as Special Immigrant Juvenile, or SIJ, Status.
While lawyers often seek either type of relief, SIJ status requires involvement of state family courts as well as the federal immigration system. The stakes can be high, as children fight deportation, or removal, to their home countries.
“These cases are technical, and removal cases in particular are scary for everyone,” Michael Ross, a partner at Jenner & Block LLP, whose firm has handled several cases.
Attorneys such as Steven Schulman, the pro bono partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, and David Lash, pro bono counsel at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, said that while helping individuals is important, a wider solution is needed.
“The ability of the pro bono community to expand its efforts is wholly dependent on the ability of the legal aid organizations to increase their capacity to screen cases, interview children and provide expert mentoring and supervision to the pro bono lawyers who are handling the cases,” Lash said in a phone interview.
Those legal aid groups “are at capacity,” he said.
That’s the thinking behind a lawsuit filed last month by the American Civil Liberties Union to compel the U.S. government to provide representation for the children. Theo Angelis, a partner in the Seattle office of K&L Gates LLP and co-counsel on the case, said pro bono resources are “just a tiny fraction of what’s needed.”
“The idea that kids as young as 10 could face a judge or prosecutor and stand up in court and explain why they should be able to stay in the country is absurd,” he said.
The Syracuse University Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse recently reviewed more than 100,000 case records of immigrant children facing deportation and found that of those cases, 48 percent had no attorney with them in court.
Additionally, according to Akin Gump’s Schulman, the immigration courts are “horribly backlogged,” with cases scheduled years in advance.
There’s no process, he said. “There’s just delay.”
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