For Immigrant Children Crossing Border, Fears Meet Court Backlog

Audie Cornish talks with Michelle Abarca, a supervising attorney with the Americans for Immigrant Justice, on how the surge in unaccompanied children has impacted her organization. Abarca also recommends ways of coping with the influx.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The Obama administration is trying to get support from states to host the thousands of children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on their own. More than 57,000 children have crossed that border since October, most of them from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Under current law, unaccompanied minors are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of coming into the U.S. It's up to HHS to figure out where they go next. Because of this, the influx of children is being felt not just in border states, but in cities across the country. That includes Miami, where we reached Michelle Abarca. She's an attorney with the group Americans for Immigrant Justice, which provides free legal services to unaccompanied children.

MICHELLE ABARCA: The crisis is being felt in Miami, definitely. Each child gets a thorough interview with a legal professional, where we try to understand their immigration history, their reasons for being here. Last year, we interviewed over 1,600 children. This year, we're close to meeting that number, and it's only July.

CORNISH: What kind of condition are these kids in? What do they tell you?

ABARCA: The children, for the most part, express fear - a fear of returning to their home countries because of violence, because of things that happen at home as well. It's not just the gang violence or the drug-related violence in these countries, but it's also a lot of what's happening in their homes. Some of them have been abandoned, abused or neglected. Some of them have been abused on the way to the U.S. So our interviews try to get to the bottom of each child's history and to understand what prompted them to come here.

CORNISH: We've also been hearing a lot about rumors in Central America that if children are sent across the border to the U.S., that they'll be able to stay. What are you hearing about these rumors from the kids you're interviewing?

ABARCA: One of the questions we ask the children is, why do you come here? And very rarely will someone respond, because I heard that if you came here, you could stay. I think sometimes what happens is that - the fact that the children are being released from federal custody pending an immigration court proceeding may be misinterpreted by some. I will tell you, when we go to immigration court and the children are there, some are with parents, some are with other caretakers. It is very real to them that they can be sent back. You can sense the fear. They ask you the questions. They fear being apprehended there again. So I don't see that fearless attitude that is being discussed in the media in the children. These families are very, very afraid.

CORNISH: There's also a lot of talk now about expediting deportations of unaccompanied children. Last week, President Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion dollars to help with the crisis, which would be used to hire more judges and border patrol officers and also equipped detention centers. What are your biggest concerns about potential changes to the systems in place now?

ABARCA: The main concern is due process. These children have rights, and this is a country that prides itself on respecting those rights. So if we are going to expedite these cases, it needs to be done in a way that respects those rights. There is a reason why we have laws that protect these children. They are vulnerable. They may be victims of human trafficking. A significant number of them may qualify for lawful immigration status if they have the opportunity to present their case in court before a judge.

CORNISH: At the same time, the current system is overwhelmed, right? That's the argument here behind adding more resources. Michelle Abarca, what do you see as a viable way of addressing the current crisis?

ABARCA: I agree that the system is overburdened. For example, in Miami, the docket for these children is actually adding 100 new cases per week. And even before the crisis, you had thousands and thousands of cases not involving unaccompanied minors that are in courts that are backlogged. So I do believe that adding more judges is a good thing overall for the prompt adjudication of all cases, not just children's cases.

I do believe that additional resources to care for the children while they're here to make sure that the rights they have under the law are protected are important. These children are forced to face a removal proceeding before an immigration judge, and they have a right to an attorney. But no attorney is appointed to them. So children should have an attorney who goes to court with them to present their case. And ultimately a judge will decide whether they get to stay or whether they have to go home. But we need to give them a real and meaningful opportunity for due process.

CORNISH: Michelle Abarca, she is director of the Children's Legal Program at the group Americans for Immigrant Justice. She spoke with us from Miami. Thank you so much.

ABARCA: Thank you.

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