A program that provides help to unaccompanied minors was slashed just as the government has instituted policies that split kids from parents.
When the Trump administration announced this month it would criminally prosecute everyone who crossed the border illegally, which meant jailing immigrant parents and separating them from their children, it effectively manufactured a whole new group of unaccompanied minors who now must navigate the complicated US immigration system by themselves. In less than two weeks, 658 kids were divided from their mothers and fathers—and the policy is still ramping up.
Meanwhile, the government has just quietly shut off a legal lifeline for this very population, putting them at an even higher risk of deportation. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal program that for over a decade has funded organizations representing unaccompanied minors in immigration court while those children live with adult relatives or guardians, told the groups to stop taking new cases just days after the family separation policy began, multiple sources from nonprofit groups funded by ORR told me.
“The government is creating unaccompanied kids, then releasing them to someone other than parents, and then further restricting their ability to access counsel,” said Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention services for Texas’s Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which has represented kids through the ORR funds. “So they’re almost ensuring people cannot successfully navigate the immigration court process.”
RAICES, which typically represents about 300 unaccompanied minors a year in the Dallas-Fort Worth area thanks to ORR funding, had just screened a new round of applicants when they received the announcement earlier this month to accept no further cases, staff attorney Jennifer de Haro told me.
“We had to call all the families back and tell them we couldn’t provide them free services anymore,” she said.
At least 1,000 children each year—a small yet significant portion of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors—have received representation through ORR funding, which is administered through the nonprofit Vera Institute to about a dozen organizations nationwide, immigration sources told me. ORR gave no reason for its sudden end to this program, nor did its spokesperson return multiple requests for comment.
Slashing legal services while throwing more youths into the immigration system will inevitably lead to these vulnerable kids being deported, advocates told me. Immigrants have no right to counsel in these proceedings, and children formerly tied to their parents’ cases will now generally have their own cases. That’s because proceedings must go forward where each individual is located, and a parent could be detained in a different state from the shelter or sponsor of their child. Additionally, any parent in detention is put on a detained docket, which cannot include non-detained family members.
This means far more kids will be representing themselves in immigration court—and according to recent data compiled by the online tool TRAC, unrepresented children are far more likely to lose their cases than those who have lawyers. Not only is it nearly impossible for the kids to fully understand how to present their cases, but many of the children simply are too nervous to appear in court without a lawyer—and if they miss just one hearing, a judge can order them deported, de Haro explained.
“A lot of children are going to be too afraid to go to court and are not going to understand their legal rights,” she said.