The Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty ()

Teenagers Brian Petsch-Cabrera and Hever Escovar were badly abused by their fathers and left their Central American countries for the United States, crossing treacherous jungles and the Rio Grande.

Within months of their 18th birthday, the young men were almost certainly destined for deportation. But before the U.S. immigration system took control, they were scooped up by the Cuban American Bar Association Pro Bono Project in Miami.

Petsch-Cabrera and Escovar, now both 18, are living with relatives after securing special immigrant juvenile visas for neglected or abused children thanks to the project.

On Saturday Escovar was expected to be on hand for CABA’s third annual Lawyers on the Run 5K at Tropical Park in suburban Miami. Proceeds are earmarked for the pro bono project.

Established in 1984, the CABA Pro Bono Project is a 501(3)(c) organization separate from the voluntary bar association. Lesley Mendoza, the group’s executive director, wants to get the word out that the organization doesn’t just solely focus on Cuban-American issues, especially when it comes to the increasing number of unaccompanied immigrant children in the United States.

“These are kids who are abused and abandoned and neglected by their parents who are coming here from mostly Central America,” Mendoza said. “We are really running against the clock if they are close to turning 18.”

Since the pilot program launched last year, about 50 unaccompanied immigrant children have been helped by the CABA group.

Without the proper visa, Mendoza said a teenage immigrant can’t get a job, driver’s license or in-state college tuition.

“We are changing the lives of these children forever,” Mendoza said.

The program is operated in conjunction with the Miami Pro Bono Roundtable and the One Campaign of the Florida Bar.

Volunteer attorneys offer to conduct intake interviews with unrepresented children on the Miami juvenile immigration dockets. Following the interviews, an attorney from the project will appear as a friend of the court.

Very Gratifying

Staff attorney Yesenia Arocha said many of the volunteers don’t get to do this type of law in their day-to-day practice.

“It’s a benefit to the attorney and it’s very gratifying to the attorney,” Arocha said. “They usually work with large clients, so this is something that is very different. For them, it’s refreshing. They get a sense of accomplishment. They are changing lives for the better.”

The CABA Pro Bono Project recruits law firms and brings the lawyers to immigration courts to identify the minors in need. Many have been apprehended in Texas and placed with a guardian, usually a relative, until their legal status can be determined.

If no relative can be found, the children are placed with sponsors. Sometimes, it’s for the best because many relatives who take in the minors often are in this country illegally, earning little money and having trouble feeding themselves.

Without the group’s intervention, many of the children would never understand the process or know their options.

“These are 12-year-old, 13-year-old, 14-year-old kids that don’t speak English, and now they are going in front of a judge alone,” Mendoza said.

Escovar was surprised to find a group eager to help him.

“He thought he was going to be deported,” Mendoza said. “He was very worried and anxious that he was going to have to do this by himself.”

Escovar said he and his younger brothers in Honduras left their abusive father to live with their grandmother. But she couldn’t care for them, and the brothers left for America. Their paid guide abandoned them in Mexico.

“It was very difficult. I was very hungry,” Escovar said. “When you sleep, you sleep on the dirt floor in the jungle with no water. People treat you badly, and bad things can happen when you cross the river.”

Escovar doesn’t even remember where he crossed into the United States.

‘Moving Forward’

Petsch-Cabrera tells a similar story in a short video posted on the project’s website, including the mad dash to prevent deportation as he was about to turn 18.

“We had very little time to present the necessary documents to the judge. Luckily we were able to obtain permission from the judge,” he said. “Yesnia worked day and night. Thanks to her I now live with my brothers.”

A sobbing Petsch-Cabrera gave thanks on the video to the CABA Pro Bono Project, saying he plans to “keep moving forward” with his education.

“If it wasn’t for my attorneys, things would be bad,” he said. “I would be sad to go back to my country and my situation in which I was living with my father.’

While there is often an economic component to border crossings by minors, Mendoza said more often than not there’s also neglect or abuse.

“I saw one child who came here because he was gay and he was being abused by the local town police chief who was also gay and didn’t want anybody to know he was gay,” she said.

The project points to a report in January by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops which forecast 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America will cross the Southwest border into the U.S. this year. That is an increase from just under 25,000 in 2013 and about 5,800 a decade ago.

Data compiled by the conference’s Office of Refugee Resettlement show 95 percent of unaccompanied children come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, countries where crime and violence have soared in recent years

David Abraham, a professor of immigration and citizen law at the University of Miami School of Law, said the increase of unaccompanied minors could be attributed to many things, including growing drug violence.

Startling numbers

But Abraham said the numbers cited by CABA are startling.

“This is a new phenomena,” he said. “I have to say I’m taken aback.”

The project also provides other services, including representation of human trafficking and domestic abuse victims as well as foreclosure defense. But Mendoza said legal community help is especially needed for the representation of unaccompanied minor immigrants.

“It’s extremely rewarding work, and I think that’s why we do it, and we try to spread the word out to get as many attorneys out there as possible to help,” Mendoza said.