Roberto E. Reyes-Perez visits virtually with migrant children housed in federal shelters hour after hour, day after day, explaining their rights in the U.S. immigration system and hearing their stories of gang violence in their home countries or harrowing journeys to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It does not stop,” he said. “It’s ongoing, every day, every week.”
Reyes-Perez, a staff attorney for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Project, or ProBAR, a Harlingen, Texas-based legal advocacy group, is on the frontline of efforts to ensure migrant children flooding the border receive legal advice and are better equipped to navigate the U.S. immigration system.
But for every migrant minor he advises, several others in federal custody go without any legal counsel, advocates and attorneys said. The children, some as young as 3 years old, are expected to explain why they are seeking asylum.
In recent weeks, federal officials have faced a steady rise in the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially unaccompanied minors. A major challenge for the Biden administration has been accommodating all the minors into federally-run shelters and connecting them with U.S.-based parents or relatives so they can be released.
But administration officials also face pressure from immigration activists to ensure the children have legal representation throughout the process. For the past year, lawyers and legal advocates have used Zoom and other platforms to connect with children held in federal shelters since COVID-19 restrictions mostly barred visitors from shelters. The advocates explain their rights and protections to the minors and at times represent them in legal proceedings.
As the number of unaccompanied migrants arriving at the border continues to grow, getting them legal services will become increasingly important, especially as they scatter to different U.S. cities to live with their sponsors, said Elissa Steglich, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.
“It’s a real challenge,” she said. “Access to legal advocates and representation is critical.”
Making sure migrant children know their rights
Federal agents encountered 9,457 unaccompanied minors along the border in February — nearly double the number in January but still under the nearly 12,000 children encountered in May 2019, the most recent high peak. To house the influx of minors, federal officials have reopened shelters in Donna and Carrizo Springs, Texas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is opening another facility to house the youth and the Dallas convention center is readying to accommodate another 3,000 migrants.
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008, unaccompanied children who show up at the border are granted certain protections, such as not being placed in detention centers and initially telling their stories to an asylum officer in an informal setting, rather than an immigration judge in a courtroom. If the asylum officer denies the minor’s claim, however, the child may later have to appear in front of an immigration judge.
Florence Chamberlin, an El Paso-based immigration attorney and head of the Mexico program for Kids in Need of Defense, a national advocacy group, has visited unaccompanied minors in shelters across the border in Ciudad Juarez to explain their rights and what happens if they cross the border and enter U.S. custody.
She gives what’s known as a “Know Your Rights” presentation, explaining how the minors should be treated in shelters and how their case will progress through the federal system. She’s seen children as young as a few months old up to 17 years old. One teenager was expelled under the former administration of Donald Trump and found sleeping in a cemetery near the border in Mexico, she said.
Children express the trauma of their lives differently than adults and it takes skilled legal professionals to help them through the asylum process, Chamberlin said.
Unlike in U.S. criminal proceedings, children in immigration court don’t get government-appointed counsel, she said. Lawyers find them during court hearings or are contacted by relatives. If their asylum hearing fails, many end up in a courtroom, by themselves, struggling to understand legal concepts, such as “removal proceedings” and “deferred action,” that even adults may have a hard time grasping, Chamberlin said.
“It’s so important that kids have representation,” she said. “If you’re explaining the law to a child, they’re not going to understand the word ‘persecution’ … You have to break it down for them in words they understand.”
Lawyers don’t only help migrant children with legal proceedings. Sometimes they help the minors exit the federal custody system.
Last week, Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio-based immigration attorney who represents unaccompanied minors, got a call from a panicked family in New York, saying they had a missed phone call and voicemail from a shelter telling them their 13-year-old relative from Ecuador had arrived at the border and was in federal custody. The family gathered all the documents they needed to claim her — but the voicemail didn’t include a reply phone number or even what state the teen was being held in.
Using the missed call’s area code, Brandmiller is trying to locate the teen and have her released to her family.
“There seems to be confusion at every level,” she said.
Letting migrant children know they are not alone
Reyes-Perez was a civil attorney practicing in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. He spent a year contracting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help rebuild his island, then yearned to continue helping people.
Two years ago, he moved to South Texas to help guide young immigrants through the federal system.
Reyes-Perez’s workdays begin before 8 a.m. with a series of teleconferences to the shelter and often end well after dinnertime. Children stare back at him during the video chats, recounting harrowing journeys across countries and dodging kidnappers to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Some children barely have the vocabulary to recount the scenes they’ve escaped, he said.
He’s noticed a steady rise in the number of children at federal shelters beginning around February. Staffers at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, tasked with caring for the children after they cross the border, have been moving them out of the shelters fairly quickly, mostly to relatives in the United States, he said.
Reyes-Perez said it’s sometimes difficult connecting with the children via screens and getting them to trust him enough to tell their stories. Often, a child won’t smile until their third video meeting, he said.
Mostly, he tells them they’re not alone in the process.
“We let them know there will be someone there next to them,” Reyes-Perez said. “It gives them some peace.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.