Alone, Undocumented, Afraid

At the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, law students, social work students and attorneys work together to help unaccompanied children who have been detained by immigration authorities.

This story is a sidebar in Immigration and Identity.

Every week, children arrive in the United States from around the world without their parents, some victims of human trafficking, some fleeing from extreme poverty or abusive homes, some to be reunited with their families who have already come to the U.S.

Each year the Department of Homeland Security takes into custody approximately 8,000 of these unaccompanied, undocumented children. The children find themselves in the throes of complicated, multi-agency deportation proceedings that most of them are far too young to comprehend. Their stay in detention shelters can be anywhere from one month to a year as they await decisions about family reunification.

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, housed in the University of Chicago legal clinic, advocates for the rights of these children. While the U.S. government guarantees individuals in removal proceedings the right to an attorney, it does not pay for that representation, and many children must appear in court without an adult by their side. Furthermore, the immigration system is designed for the deportation of adults, with no separate courts or standards for adjudicating children’s cases.

“The movement to reform the juvenile system 100 years ago had to do with kids being charged as adults and tried alongside adults,” says Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center, “but here we are a century later and children in immigration proceedings face the same consequences, the same very complicated immigration system as adults, and there really aren’t accommodations made for the fact that they are children.”

The Young Center works to ensure that the child has a voice in the system, is safe from harm, is not unnecessarily separated from parents or other family, and is free from immigration detention. It assigns bilingual, often bicultural, child advocates to advocate for the best interests of individual children, helps ensure the children have lawyers, and looks out for their other needs, from assistance with school enrollment to connecting to other social service agencies as needed.  SSA master’s student Erin Bradley is a child advocate with the Young Center, one of many SSA students and alumni who have served at the eight year-old organization. Her task is to listen to the stories of the children and help to craft the best interest brief that will be delivered to the child’s lawyer and/or the decisionmaker, such as immigration judges and asylum officers, to explain what the child requests and their circumstances. Because the Young Center serves the most vulnerable children—including those who are very young, have mental health needs or have been in detention a very long time—it’s important to have social workers among the staff and volunteers.

“Having a social work background, even with my administration concentration, is really helpful. With a person-in-environment perspective, I feel like I can look for the family context and the life history,” says Bradley, who is working at the Young Center as her second-year field placement. “We also see a lot of kids with trauma history, and my background and knowledge of mental health issues helps in my work with someone with that trauma, and I know to advocate to make sure the child gets appropriate mental health counseling.”

Even after they are released to family members, the children remain in deportation proceedings. Some will qualify for asylum or special juvenile status or will be awarded a visa as a victim of human trafficking. Others may be granted prosecutorial discretion, which means the government won’t actively work to deport the child, although they remain without any lawful status.

Bradley, who also interned in Nicaragua last summer (see the “Social Work / Social Justice” article), has worked with six children since starting at the Young Center, all of whom have been released in the U.S. “We still maintain phone contact,” she says. “They are still in legal proceedings, and some may have a court case, and I can help them understand the process. In any event, I keep in touch to be sure they’re getting all the services they need.”

It’s been less than a decade since a movement arose to gain representation and a statutory best interests standard for children deemed to be unaccompanied, undocumented minors. “At the end of the day, they’re all still just kids,” says Elizabeth Frankel, the associate director of the Young Center. “And despite all of these obstacles, they’re incredibly resilient when given the right support.”