Luis A. Cordero, partner with Cordero & Associates ()
Miami immigration attorney Luis A. Cordero got a glimpse of the young immigrant crisis to come a few years ago.
He was in court on another matter when he saw a 10-year-old boy from Guatemala standing in front of the immigration judge trying to explain why he shouldn’t be deported. The child had traveled through Mexico and crossed into the United States without his parents.
“This kid was terrified, his voice was cracking just answering what his name was,” said Cordero, a partner at Cordero & Associates. “I stood up and took the case right on the spot, I felt so bad for him.”
Cordero’s office said his client is now a permanent resident. He could very well have been deported if Cordero didn’t stand up that day as his attorney. A new study shows unaccompanied minor immigrants without legal representation have a 90 percent chance of being deported.
And there are now so many young unaccompanied immigrants fleeing gang violence in Central America that advocates are calling it a true refugee crisis.
More than 52,000 undocumented, unaccompanied minors have crossed the border this year since October. Many of these children, ranging in age from toddlers to older teenagers, have been transported to Miami for either placement or to plead their case to stay before an immigration judge.
President Barack Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to hire more immigration judges, establish shelters, tighten border security and for deportation, among other things.
One of the organizations on the front lines of the surge in South Florida is Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, which is scrambling to get the children legal representation.
“We’ve been in crisis in terms of the number of children fleeing from Central America for about two years, and it has been in the last three months that the numbers are just off the chart,” said attorney Cheryl Little, executive director for AIJ. “Last year we provided services to 1,600 children, and this year so far we have almost met that mark.”
Immigration authorities find South Florida a conducive place for these children for several reasons.
Little said two Miami shelters have been designated for unaccompanied immigrant minors: Children’s Village run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami Inc. and the nonprofit, faith-based His House Children’s Home Inc.
Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, said immigrant children spend on average less than 30 days at shelters before being placed with a guardian, usually a family member.
“These shelters are consistently quiet and good neighbors in the communities where they are located,” he said.
Miami immigration attorney Linda Osberg-Braun said there’s a simple reason why South Florida is a good place to relocate these children.
“In our population, we have a lot of Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans,” said Osberg-Braun, a partner at Bernstein Osberg-Braun. “This is a destination where distant family members would be present and could take care of them.”
Randy McGrorty, executive director Catholic Legal Services with the archdiocese, helps locate relatives. He said South Florida, because of its history, is welcoming to displaced children.
Miami was a top destination for 14,000 Cuban children sent to Miami by their parents during Operation Pedro Pan from 1960 to 1962.
“We protected them, we educated them, and they went on to become successful businessmen and political leaders,” McGrorty said. “We have been through this many times. We have been able to help large groups of people, and we have been able to see the fruit of our work. Immigrants have come and built modern Miami.”
Immigration attorneys said the main reason these children are coming is because of violence in Central America by organized gangs.
“Kids are literally taken from their home and forced to participate in the criminal activity, and if they don’t their family will suffer retribution,” Osberg-Braun said.
Little added Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are the among the five most dangerous countries to live in the world.
“You talk to the kids, and that becomes very clear,” she said. “We think that 60 percent of the kids we speak to have a potential claim from relief of deportation.”
Hector A. Chichoni, an immigration attorney with Duane Morris in Miami, echoed sentiments of many in his field that legal representation is essential for the immigrant children despite an overburdened system.
“They should be given due process, and an immigration lawyer should represent them, and immigration judges should review their cases,” he said. “This is not a matter of grabbing the kids and returning them back.”
Immigration judges routinely hear juvenile cases four times a month, but that may be changing shortly, Little said.
Attorneys willing to work pro bono are needed.
Trac Immigration, which compiles immigration data, recently reported 90 percent of the unaccompanied minor illegal immigrant children who lack legal representation are deported. In contrast, only 47 percent of the children who receive representation are sent home.
Immigration may be one of the defining news event of the mid-term elections. As such, there is plenty of finger pointing as more unaccompanied minors stream across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republicans blame Obama for leaving Central American families with the impression their children will be allowed to stay in the United States.
Democrats in Washington point to House conservatives failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform and note it was a 2008 anti-trafficking law that made it hard to automatically deport this influx of Central American immigrant children.
On Friday, anti-immigrant activists in small numbers held protests throughout South Florida, holding signs such as “Stop Invasion.” At another protest over a planned shelter in Michigan, some demonstrators carried semi-automatic weapons.
Conservative lawmakers and websites have fanned the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, calling on Obama to send the National Guard to the Texas border and claiming immigrant children carry the Ebola virus, which doesn’t exist in Central America.
In Arizona, a Republican congressional candidate protested a bus he thought was full of migrant children. They were Americans heading to a YMCA camp.
Fox News, which has been leading its website with the crisis nearly daily, reported, “Illegal immigrant children may soon call multimillion-dollar hotel home,” replete with descriptions of its many pools and amenities. The last paragraph reported plans called for filling in the pools. The would-be shelter deal was pulled after the story.
Little described the hyperbolic news coverage and protests as “very sad, especially since we’re talking about innocent, vulnerable children.”
McGrorty added: “I am shocked at the reaction people are having to children. That is very, very disturbing. We have to look at what is in the best interest of the children and leave the broader immigration issues until later.”