Who are the children coming from the border to Pennsylvania?
HIAS Pennsylvania is the state’s largest provider of immigration legal services to immigrant children and youth. We spoke with Tatiana Fisch, a member of HIAS PA’s immigrant youth advocacy staff who works with children and teenagers sent to a Pennsylvania shelter after they have crossed alone into the US, about the young people she has been helping since the Biden Administration stopped the illegal practice of sending children back over the border.
What have the past few weeks been like for you?
Tatiana: It’s been crazy. In the last two weeks, Immigration sent over 50 kids from the border to a local shelter where HIAS PA provides legal services.
Have these children been waiting at the border for a long time?
Tatiana: Some have. For instance, sometimes a parent or grandparent brings children to the border to ask for protection together when the whole family has been threatened by a gang. But in the past couple of years, US immigration officials have turned these family groups away. Unfortunately, they really struggle after they’re sent back to Mexico. We hear stories of kids and their grandma sleeping on the streets, a girl and her mom being kidnapped, and lots of sickness. If the children have a family member in the US who can take care of them, then sometimes the mom or grandma sends the kids across the border by themselves. It’s a really hard choice for families, but the children know they aren’t safe in Mexico.
How big of a problem are the gangs?
Tatiana: Many, many boys cross into the US because gangs are pressuring them. I just interviewed a teenage boy who left Central America to escape a gang. He told me, ‘If I say no to joining their gang, they will kill me. If I say yes, they will kill me the first time I make a mistake. One way or the other, I would soon die.’
And what about girls?
Tatiana: Some girls are victims of rape, and some were pressured to become the “women” of gang members. Gangsters can start telling a girl that she will “belong” to them as early as 11 or 12 years old. Rape is more common than a lot of people realize, sometimes by strangers and sometimes by someone they know. The girls are then stigmatized, and many girls say they can’t trust the police enough to report what happened to them.
And you say this is common?
Tatiana: Yes, we hear this over and over. In violent countries, rape becomes normalized. This is not unusual. We also see boys and girls fleeing from extreme poverty. Kids talk about being hungry, not being allowed to go to school, and working long hours at physically punishing jobs. Some girls work as live-in maids, sleeping in the kitchen and spending every waking hour cooking and cleaning except for one or two days off a month.
What is the emotional state of these children and teens when you first talk to them?
Tatiana: They’ve been through so much, and many of them haven’t talked to anyone about what they have experienced. So, you can imagine that their responses run the full gamut. Some of them are so shut down that it takes awhile to learn about them. Others can’t stop talking. For all the trauma, though, they are surprisingly optimistic on the whole.
What do you do for these young people while they are in the shelter?
Tatiana: We have a grant from the Vera Institute, a wonderful organization that works with governments around justice issues. Through Vera’s grant, we explain their rights as immigrants under the US Constitution to every child and teen. We explain immigration court and their responsibility to show up on court days. We meet with each one individually. We try to give them useful information and, based on what they have told us, identify which of their circumstances might possibly make them eligible for legal relief. Once they are released to their family member or a family friend, we document everything.
What about their transitions out of the shelter?
Tatiana: I talk to their families or other sponsors on the phone. I explain as much as I can about the different possibilities for legal relief, and I send a list of organizations that can provide legal services in their state. I myself call as many organizations as I can and say, ‘Look, this is a strong asylum case.’ If I can’t make a referral, I tell the family about private attorneys.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, children with legal representation have obtained legal outcomes that allow them to remain in the US 70% of the time, compared to just 9% for children without representation. You can help HIAS PA maintain its immigrant legal services for youth by donating to hiaspa.org/donate.