Lawmakers earmark $1 million to pay for counselors for unaccompanied kids.
With thousands of undocumented, unaccompanied minors facing possible deportation and the federal government not doing as much reforming as city officials would like, the City Council has taken it upon itself to assist the immigrant youth who are unable to pay for proper legal representation while in immigration court.
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan), the Robin Hood Foundation and New York Community Trust announced the new Unaccompanied Minor Children Initiative last week — a $1.9 million public-private partnership that will provide funding to legal organizations to address the need for free legal representation and access to social, mental health and medical services.
“The New York City Council will not stand by as this humanitarian crisis unfolds — we will take action,” Mark-Viverito said in a written statement. “This innovative initiative will go a long way towards alleviating the overflow at the surge docket while also providing representation to thousands of children.”
The City Council has earmarked $1 million in the fiscal year 2015 budget. In addition, Robin Hood — New York’s largest poverty-fighting organization — helped match the funding with a donation of $550,000. The New York Community Trust also donated $360,000.
On Monday, the Immigration Committee and Committee on Courts and Legal Services held a hearing on the new initiative and unaccompanied minors as a whole, the majority of whom live in Queens.
“What could be more important than ensuring that young children — most under the age of 13, most here without their parents, most here after a long and dangerous journey — have their legal rights protected by a fair and efficient adjudication system, where they are represented by experienced, competent counsel?” Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) asked. “I emphasize — these children have legal rights. The law provides various grounds for these children to remain in the United States.”
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, approximately 1,350 unaccompanied minors came to New York City in the first seven months of 2014 and another 1,200 are expected to flee here from Central America by the end of this year.
NYC Immigration Commissioner Nisha Agarwall said in late July she expects 10,000 children to come to the city as a result of the immigration surge.
Approximately 60 percent of these children will not have legal representation.
One of the organizations that represents the children who otherwise would not have legal counsel is The Door.
“For several years now, we have been struggling to meet the need for representing these young people,” Eve Stotland, director of the legal services center at The Door, said. “Starting on August 13 when the courts began expediting procedures, it was clear we would not be able to meet the need because we were already performing at capacity.”
The funds earmarked by the Council will help groups including The Door provide more assistance than they would have otherwise been able to.
“We needed to grow and we needed to meet the needs of these kids,” Stotland said. “Working together with these other organizations, we are committed to making sure every child and every sponsor gets a legal orientation in Spanish before heading to court. Every child also gets referrals to social services and school enrollment.”
Groups The Door will be working with include Catholic Charities, The Safe Passage Project, Make the Road New York, The Legal Aid Society and Central American Legal Assistance.
Yvonne Garcia, a client of Legal Aid, recalled how important a role the organization played in her obtaining residency papers.
“I didn’t know I could obtain my documents until I met Christina,” she said, referring to her legal counselor. “Christina explained that I could have the juvenile visa since I came to the United States without any parents when I was 16 years old and had been abused by my father.”
Garcia and her siblings were also running from gang members who threatened to kill her.
“I’m not afraid of going out or looking for work anymore,” she said.
Still, standing in a court room can be intimidating for the children, many of whom are barely teenagers.
“Last week, one of the children was so frightened, she had a panic attack which resulted in a seizure and she had to be brought to the hospital. We play a very important role in helping them face their fear in working with the court.”
Even immigration court judges have tried to make the children as comfortable as they can. One judge even shed her black robe to appear more approachable to a child.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the judge doesn’t want to scare them,” Stotland said. “The judge is friendly and if the child gets sent back to Honduras or wherever, they make sure that child will be safe.”
None of the Council members at the hearing expressed any disagreement with Mark-Viverito’s initiative. In fact, many, including the speaker, felt more needed to be done.
However, as the city is limited to staying within a budget, the elected officials are hoping the federal government will step off the sidelines and do more to assist the unaccompanied minors.
“These children, who made an incredible journey over thousands of miles and who have suffered, they cross alone and arrive exhausted and hungry,” Stotland said. “It’s our job to make sure we have lawyers for them and that, whatever the judge decides, they will leave the court and go to a place where they will be safe and able to live their lives to their fullest potential.”
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