Strapped And Stretched, Non-Profits Struggle To Defend Immigrant Minors
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While the president figures out his next move on immigration, the administration says the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border is declining. For the tens of thousands who've already crossed, their deportation hearings have been accelerated. And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, that's posing another challenge. There's a shortage of pro bono lawyers to handle their cases.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Outside the immigration court in San Francisco, a group of young volunteer attorneys prepare to go inside to meet with dozens of migrant kids at their first deportation hearing.
CLAIRE FAWCETT: There's no one to represent these people. In immigration proceedings, you have a right to an attorney, but you have to pay for your attorney. So most of the minors that are coming are living with family members here, but they're very low income.
GONZALES: Claire Fawcett is an attorney with the Oakland-based Centro Legal de la Raza. She and her colleagues will offer the minors and their families free, on the spot advice about their rights in court.
FAWCETT: We're trying to give them as much help as we can up front and then trying to refer their cases to organizations that can help them.
GONZALES: Inside the court, the volunteer attorneys advise one man who's there with his 16 old son. After a few minutes, the judge, Carol A. King, greets him and several other families in Spanish. She reassures them they will get a fair hearing. The man nods with appreciation. Although recording in court is not allowed, afterward the man tells me that his son fled El Salvador in June after gangsters made him this offer - join us or die. Still, he is relieved because the judge told him he must return for another hearing in October, which might buy him time to find a lawyer. But that's the tricky part. Immigration is a specialized legal field and with the unprecedented number of asylum-seekers, it's getting harder to find an attorney. Bianca Sierra Wolff is the executive director of Centro Legal de la Raza. She says nonprofit legal groups like hers are seeing their caseloads double overnight.
BIANCA SIERRA WOLFF: And it's flabbergasting. The people who are providing the services are your nonprofits. We're already strapped. We're not getting funding from the government. And yet we are the ones who are really at the forefront responding to this crisis.
GONZALES: Compounding the problem is the pace at which these hearings are held. Typically, asylum claims can take up to a year to get to court. Now, immigration judges are instructed to hold deportation hearings within 21 days. Critics call it fast-tracking.
DANA LEIGH MARKS: We know of the political reality that is putting pressure on the administration to hear these cases quickly.
GONZALES: Dana Leigh Marks is the president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. Last week, she urged the administration to stop fast-tracking deportation hearing. Marks says when attorneys represent noncitizens, asylum claims are better prepared and researched and the process moves more quickly. Although the minors have a right to an attorney, they must hire their own. And government data shows without a lawyer, nine out of 10 unrepresented minors were deported or left voluntarily over the past 10 years. The White House recognizes the lawyer shortage problem. Last week, Vice President Joe Biden told an audience of constitutional scholars and immigration activists that he hopes some private law firms will step up and offer more pro bono help.
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We need lawyers. We need trained lawyers to determine whether or not these kids meet the criteria for refugee status.
GONZALES: The White House has proposed hiring more judges and funding direct legal services, but there's no consensus in Congress how to move forward. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.