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Although recent events have brought new and welcome attention to long-standing violations of human rights, one group that still remains largely out of sight and out of mind is children. Children account for about half of the world’s 40 million refugees, and many are targets as well as bystanders in adult conflicts. Rape, torture, prostitution and conscription are pervasive. Children, the most vulnerable victims of abuse, also are least able to mobilize the legal and political resources to combat it. That is true for child refugees in the United States as well as those abroad. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, about 8,500 children seek asylum in the United States annually. Almost three-quarters come unaccompanied, and about 5,000 lack proper documentation. Those without appropriate papers are subject to detention under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The conditions in which these children are held are shameful by any standards, particularly those of a country that aspires to be a leader on international human rights. The INS detains asylum applicants in about 900 sites across the nation, mostly local jails. INS guidelines provide that children should be housed separately from adults, but inadequacies in agency procedures and detention facilities mean that many minors end up in juvenile delinquency institutions or adult jail cells. Reports document inhumane conditions and human rights abuses in such facilities: Assaults, sexual violence, strip searches and inadequate access to health care are common. As the American Bar Association’s then-President Martha Barnett noted in February’s ABA Journal, family members are routinely separated and housed at different sites. Many detainees experience cramped living conditions, no privacy and limited contact with the outside world. Contact with lawyers who could help remedy the situation is especially limited. Detained asylum seekers have no right to counsel, and an estimated 90 percent receive no legal representation. Children are typically unable to afford private lawyers and are ineligible for publicly subsidized assistance. Congressional restrictions prohibit representation of undocumented aliens by programs that receive funding from the federal Legal Services Corp., and many states have similar prohibitions. Detention facilities are often in remote locations, which reduces access to pro bono programs. As a result, most detained children either proceed pro se or accept voluntary deportation. Those who attempt to navigate a system designed by and for lawyers are at a severe disadvantage. According to an overview by Christopher Nugent and Steven Schulman, the small minority of detained children who obtain counsel are four times more likely to succeed in their asylum claims. DAUNTING, EVEN WITH COUNSEL Even those minors fortunate enough to receive legal assistance or to establish their right to an asylum hearing without such help still confront daunting conditions. Because juvenile cases do not receive priority on INS calendars, children frequently experience extended delays in receiving a hearing. In the interim, they are cut off from family — and opportunities for contact, even by phone, are often prohibitively expensive. The absence of a consistent and familiar caregiver while in INS custody adds to the trauma of confinement and is particularly harmful to young children and those who are survivors of physical abuse. Panic, anxiety and depression are common responses and prod many minors into abandoning valid asylum claims. We can and must do better. An obvious start would be to remove restrictions on public funding for undocumented aliens, or at least for those under 18, and to increase dramatically their access to pro bono services. The ABA’s Immigration Pro Bono Development and Bar Activation Project provides grants and assistance to state and local bar association projects. Some, like the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Program, offer a model for effective initiatives. We should be proud of those efforts but embarrassed by the vast unmet needs remaining. It is a shameful irony that the nation with the world’s highest concentration of lawyers and a leadership role in global human rights campaigns does so little to protect vulnerable children. Our profession has an obligation and an opportunity to do better by those who need help most. Deborah Rhode, who teaches at Stanford Law School, is director of the Keck Center on Legal Ethics.

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