When thousands of Central American children began flooding across the Texas border in 2014, the state’s legal community said it was ready to pitch in and help minors seeking asylum in the United States navigate a system that doesn’t guarantee a right to counsel.
Two years later however, some of the state’s top immigration attorneys say that promised help is slipping away as the issue fades from the headlines. Most of the children, including almost 50,000 apprehended in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley since October 2013, must go it alone as they try to convince immigration judges they shouldn’t be sent back to the places they fled.
“The voluntary agencies and the law school programs have always been totally inadequate for that [representation], so it depends on volunteer lawyers coming to the rescue,” said Charles Foster, the chairman of Foster LLP, a Houston-based immigration law firm. “I’m guilty of that myself. When there is a big thing happening, we all seem to gear up, and then the level of attention dies down. And therefore, the amount of volunteer lawyers will diminish.”
The plan two years ago was to recruit attorneys who weren’t immigration experts but were willing to learn, said Benny Agosto, a Houston-based lawyer who spearheaded the task force created by the Hispanic National Bar Association to help the undocumented minors.
Agosto said the decline in people crossing the border illegally in 2015 could have led to a lack of volunteers. In 2015, there were about 9,075 unaccompanied minors caught or apprehended by authorities in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector. That’s compared to 19,260 the previous year.
“The numbers dwindled somewhat, but we were very prepared,” he said. “Less kids were coming across, and Catholic Charities had vacancies” at its shelters.
It’s unclear how many of the original volunteers are still working immigration cases, or how many new recruits the legal community can expect. On its website, the State Bar of Texas provides information for pro bono training seminars. But after listing 13 events for 2014, there are only two so far for 2016, and no events were held in 2015, according to the site.
Attorneys whose sole practice is immigration law say the need is still dire.
Kimi Jackson, the director of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, or ProBar, said her Harlingen office has a staff of about 12 trying to represent 1,867 immigrants in the 17 shelters she works with.
“The reality is that the number of kids that have been through the system is really high right now,” she said. “And somebody who took pro bono cases before might be inundated with requests now. There’s definitely not enough help to go around.”
And even then, the attorneys are limited in what they can do if a child’s final destination isn’t Texas.
“If a child is going to Miami, then we would refer them to a non-profit in Miami,” she said. “We focus on the kids that are going to be here a little bit longer because if the kids are only in our area for a couple of weeks, then it’s usually not possible to work on that case during that short time.”
Agosto said some of the children don’t even know they can get legal help because they aren’t told or are shuffled around the country before they have a chance to seek out an attorney.
“Unless some family member hires you, you have to be at the right place at the right time,” he said.
Data shows that representation can mean the difference between deportation and permission, even temporarily, to stay in the country.
According to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Action Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, more than 43,000 of the 63,700 unaccompanied minors whose cases were pending as of Oct. 2014 did not have an attorney. And more than 80 percent of unaccompanied minors who entered the country between 2012 and 2014 and didn't have representation were deported.
Fears of deportation were heightened last week when the Obama administration announced it would continue the raids it began in January to seek out and remove people, including mothers and children, who have been ordered to leave by an immigration judge.
The administration insists its policies are consistent with the guidelines the president established in 2014.
“We stress that these operations are limited to those who were apprehended at the border after January 1, 2014, have been ordered removed by an immigration court and have no pending appeal or pending claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws,” ICE spokesperson Nina Pruneda said last week. “We stress also that in its enforcement operations, ICE will continue to adhere to existing guidance to avoid the apprehension of individuals at sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals and places of worship, except in emergency circumstances.”