News & Views

What happens to kids from the border when they arrive in Pennsylvania?

HIAS Pennsylvania is the state’s largest provider of immigration legal services to immigrant children and youth. We asked Stephanie Lubert, Managing Attorney for the Immigrant Youth Advocacy Program, and Mary McCabe, Supervising Attorney for the Detained Children’s Initiative, about the unfolding story on unaccompanied children at the southern border and their impact on our region. 

What’s causing the influx of unaccompanied children at the southern border?

Mary: Violence, corruption, and poverty in Central America have been driving children north for years, and there are always more crossings in the spring, when the weather is warming up. The large numbers are related to a pent-up demand that built over the past year when children couldn’t come. Climate change is also making things worse. Kids from rural areas have been telling us for a while their families can’t survive after years of drought, and the recent hurricanes have been devastating. 

What defines the Biden administration’s approach to this situation?

Stephanie: The border has basically been closed for the past year. Children were being turned away and stranded in very dangerous Mexican border towns. Thankfully, this administration has resumed processing unaccompanied children into the US, but it is now tasked with managing a larger number of children trying to cross over. Immigration officials are responding to pent-up demand with an immigration system that was partially dismantled. 

Can you tell me about one of these kids? 

Mary: I was just talking to the mother of an eight-year-old client. The mother fled Honduras when the police threatened to kill her because she had seen them doing a drug deal.  The mother left my client with relatives, thinking the police wouldn’t worry about a little girl. But then they did threaten my client, so her relatives brought her to the border to join her mother in Pennsylvania. She crossed alone with her mother’s contact information.

How do some children end up in Pennsylvania?

Stephanie: Border agents send unaccompanied children to federally-run shelters across the US within 72 hours of contact. The government then works to locate a family member or close friend who will serve as a sponsor. So, children come to this area because they have family living in Philadelphia or central Pennsylvania. Children who have no family are sometimes placed with foster families in the area.

How do children in these programs get connected to HIAS PA?

Mary: We are fortunate that a grant funds us to provide legal services for detained unaccompanied children in our area. That means we do “know your rights” presentations and legal consultations with each detained child. We make sure young people understand their rights and what the court process will be like. I was just working with a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old. They were so cute and kept raising their hands with the answers during my presentation. I ask the younger children to repeat their rights back to me, and these kids were right on top of it.

Do you ever represent the children individually?

Stephanie: Absolutely, if a child is released from a shelter to a sponsor here in Pennsylvania we will represent them in their removal proceedings. Most of the youth we represent apply for asylum and/or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. We also represent detained children who don’t have a sponsor.

How does a child qualify for asylum?

Mary: Asylum requires that a person fears persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. In recent years, the courts have defined the criteria for asylum more and more narrowly. For instance, the eight-year-old I mentioned is at risk because she is related to her mother, who witnessed corrupt police in a drug deal. I’m arguing that my client fears persecution based on her membership in the social group of her nuclear family. Traditionally courts have seen the family as a classic example of a particular social group, but the last administration has tried to make these cases more difficult. I don’t know what the decision will be in this case. 

You mentioned Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS)? What’s that?

Mary: Children can qualify for SIJS if they can prove they have been neglected, abandoned, or abused by a parent. SIJS protects a child from deportation back to those same parents and puts them in line for lawful permanent residency, but that can take years. During that time, they truly live in limbo, they can’t work legally and lack access to most federal benefits. They have tremendous difficulty enrolling in college. 

Your hearts must just break sometimes. How do you do it?

Mary: Colleagues help a lot. Most of all, our clients are so wonderful. They are so full of energy and hope and even joy. They are still children. And we keep going because there are always some we can help.

What can a person who cares about immigrant children do to help?

Stephanie: We have to turn away many children and teens because we just don’t have the capacity to serve them all. Despite their vulnerability, these children are not guaranteed any kind of legal representation. Lack of legal counsel combined with the dramatic influx of children entering the U.S. has led to a critical need for low-cost legal services. Children who are represented are more likely to be granted some form of immigration relief versus kids who do not have a lawyer. There is a high probability that the kids that HIAS PA turns away due to lack of capacity will end up with a deportation order. You can help us represent more immigrant youth by donating to HIAS PA’s Unaccompanied Minor fund

Donate to HIAS Pennsylvania’s Unaccompanied Minors Fund today to help children from the border in Pennsylvania.

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