Op-Ed

Unaccompanied immigrant children could face a return to danger

Immigration activists with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) demand the Mexican government take more measures to protect and respect the rights of unaccompanied minors and families crossing Mexico's territory, during a protest outside the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles Thursday, July 3, 2014.
Immigration activists with Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) demand the Mexican government take more measures to protect and respect the rights of unaccompanied minors and families crossing Mexico's territory, during a protest outside the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles Thursday, July 3, 2014. AP

I’m a technology lawyer who has helped companies like Microsoft, Skype and Polaroid navigate the web of national and global laws that govern telecommunications, cloud computing, securities trading and intellectual property. Sound complex? Actually, it’s my pro bono work on behalf of immigrant and refugee children who came alone to the United States seeking safety that’s really complicated.

A decade ago, a bipartisan bill was signed into a law that established child-friendly procedures intended both to protect these children from falling into the hands of traffickers or abusers and to encourage these children to make their case for protection under U.S. law. These basic due process procedures are critical to ensuring that children are not sent back to harm without a real chance for our courts to hear them. It’s one of the few immigration protocols that is actually working in this country right now, yet it’s somehow under threat by the administration and some members of Congress.

To help explain how vital these protections are, I need to tell you a couple of the stories of the children I am representing. The names of the children in these stories have been changed for their protection.

Gianni was left with his grandmother in a small town in Guatemala when he was two years old while his single mom left to find a way to scratch out a living. Gianni’s grandmother did her best but her small garden was inadequate to feed them both, and she was no match for the visiting uncle who began to rape Gianni when he was six years old. He grew up under that torment, half-starving, always frightened and increasingly alone as his grandmother’s health deteriorated. In desperation Gianni managed to make it to this country, and with the support of the non-profit Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), we were able to help him navigate the American immigration system and earn his green card. It was the first break he ever got. Today he is working, legally, paying taxes, starting a family, building a life.

Emma, from Honduras, has a similar story, but hers involves her middle school teacher, who was untouchable as a local gang leader, raping her several times a week and extorting her grandmother from the time Emma turned 11 until she fled when she was almost 15.

Gianni, Emma and the many others like them need and deserve due process — which means a fair chance to have their full stories heard by a court and a chance for a green card if their case merits one. Under the draft Securing America’s Future Act, H.R. 4670, these children are put through expedited removal proceedings: a 14-day turnaround. This time frame would effectively rob them of any realistic chance to be heard.

Child survivors of trauma, facing language and cultural barriers, struggle when asked to present their painful pasts to unfamiliar adults. Gianni could never have told his story in the few days the proposal sets for screening. Emma couldn’t talk through her tears for our first two meetings. It took me months to submit their cases, because it takes time for a person, especially a child, to tell his or her story of trauma. It takes time to develop the evidence and documentation required by the strict standards of the law. It takes time to explain it to the court and to work with the immigration authorities to show conditions for permanent residency have been met. It also takes a lawyer. These processes are every bit as complicated as they seem. To eliminate the possibility of due process and legal representation for these kids is to eliminate almost any hope.

Currently, 98 percent of the kids represented through KIND are granted the right to stay here legally. Judges find the evidence of the dangers they face in their home countries that compelling. Eliminating the fair chance to present that evidence will be sending the most vulnerable children back to certain harm and possibly death in some of the most lawless places in the world. While the country may be divided over many aspects of immigration policy, surely we can agree that we don’t want to return children to grave danger where they have no protection. Please, urge your representatives to keep alive due process protections for unaccompanied children. Let them tell their stories.

Julie Petrini, a lawyer, works pro bono on behalf of immigrant and refugee children who came alone to the United States seeking safety.

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