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It is a story replete with more tragedy, drama and hope than many best-selling novels. A 14-year-old South American girl witnesses the murder of both of her parents in her native country. They are killed because of their involvement in workers’ rights groups. For her own safety, and a desire for a better future, this orphaned child summons the courage and determination to make her way to the United States. After a long and arduous journey, she arrives alone in New York and requests political asylum. She is briefly detained by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (formerly the INS) and released to New York City pending a decision on her request for asylum. Despite her terrible ordeal and difficult circumstances, she is determined to finish high school and someday practice forensic medicine. Sadly, this is not a fictitious story. This child is a client of the Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit. She is also not the only foreign-born child to enter the United States without a parent or legal guardian. According to the American Bar Association, approximately 5,000 unaccompanied immigrant children — as they are sometimes known — were detained in the United States in 2001 alone. Their average age was 15 years old, and the majority of the children came from China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Some unaccompanied immigrant children come to this country for the same reasons that adults do. They may be fleeing harsh or life-threatening conditions in their own country, usually related to persecution for their religious beliefs, sexual orientation or political activity. However, because of their age and vulnerability, unaccompanied immigrant children also sometimes pose unique circumstances. For example, they may have been brought here by a neglectful parent who then abandoned them, or they may have been orphaned through war or persecution. There have also been cases where children are brought into the country by smugglers seeking to use them for cheap labor, or worse. The ABA reports that approximately 35 percent of unaccompanied immigrant children are held in secure facilities in this country that human-rights monitors have criticized for being punitive and jail-like. Despite facing the possibility of deportation to a country that may pose a serious threat to their lives, these children have no right to counsel. They frequently appear alone in immigration court against experienced INS trial lawyers. Amy Meselson, a staff attorney at the Immigration Law Unit, described children in immigration court as “especially disadvantaged by language and cultural barriers, the complexity of immigration law and the difficulty of navigating federal immigration agencies.” NEW PROJECT These conditions prompted the development of a new Legal Aid Society project known as the “Juvenile Immigrant Representation Project,” which will provide legal representation to unaccompanied immigrant children with the help of volunteer lawyers. The project, born out of a unique collaboration between the Legal Aid Society and the New York City Immigration Court, will train and mentor volunteer lawyers to work with children facing deportation. The Legal Aid Society is also working closely with the New York Immigration Court to create a juvenile docket on a particular day so that all cases involving unaccompanied immigrant children can be heard on that day. This would increase the likelihood that a single judge with an appreciation of the unique issues facing children would hear the bulk of those cases. These changes would also make it easier for volunteers to participate in the project. Janet Sabel, the attorney in charge of the Immigration Law Unit, said that the Legal Aid Society is “very pleased that both the Immigration Court and trial attorneys are willing to work with us to set up a special track for young persons in immigration court proceedings. All parties understand the special needs of unaccompanied minors and the necessity of providing young people with help to assert their rights and navigate the court process.” These special needs have also been recently recognized in Congress, where bills have been introduced that would provide appointed counsel and a guardian ad litem for unaccompanied children and establish minimum standards of custody. Although this project is in the early stages of development, it has already attracted the strong support and assistance of at least two major law firms. Latham & Watkins recently hosted a training for its first-year associates who are interested in volunteering, and White & Case has provided critical support in developing the project. Lawyers interested in volunteering should contact Amy Meselson at Legal Aid at (212) 440-4258 or email her at [email protected] OTHER PROGRAMS The Juvenile Immigrant Representation Project is just the latest program available to volunteer lawyers who want to assist individuals seeking asylum in the United States. Probably the oldest and most noted program in the field is Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. This program has been around since 1978, and it matches hundreds of volunteers with asylum seekers from all around the world. Lawyers Committee is the host of the asylum practice group at the Web site http://www.probono.net. This site provides a wealth of information, including research, memos, forms, and sample briefs, relating to asylum matters. Access is free, and you can research asylum cases available at Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Over the years, programs like Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and now the Juvenile Immigrant Representation Project have provided invaluable assistance to individuals seeking asylum in the United States. Whether they are children or adults, they share a desire for a better life in this country, free of persecution and fear. Volunteering with one of these programs offers a rewarding opportunity to help someone achieve that goal and find a happy ending to their story. Anthony Perez Casino is assistant director of public service at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.

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