Lori Adams Testifies on the Crisis of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

Testimony of Lori Adams, Managing Attorney, Human Rights First at the New York City Council Committee on Immigration Oversight Hearing: Crisis of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children: What is New York City Doing?

September 29, 2014

My name is Lori Adams, and I am the Managing Attorney in the Refugee Protection Program at Human Rights First.  I submit these comments on behalf of Human Rights First, and thank the City Council for the opportunity to testify.

First, I would like to commend the City Council for its new initiative to provide counsel for many of the unaccompanied immigrant children who have recently arrived in New York City after fleeing violence in Central America.  The Unaccompanied Minor Children Initiative will help large numbers of frightened children who now live in the five boroughs of New York City by providing them with free legal representation in the New York Immigration Court.  We all know that whether a person has legal representation is one of the most important factors in whether he or she is successful in her immigration case.  Studies have shown that asylum seekers without legal representation to help prove the merits of their claims have little hope of being granted asylum protection and are at risk of being sent back to countries where they are in danger. Those who try to navigate the asylum system without counsel are up to six times more likely to have their claims rejected, and many of those who are unsuccessful in their asylum claims remain separated from their families abroad, some of whom may also be in danger and would otherwise have been eligible to join their relative here in the United States if the asylum claim had been granted.

Many of the immigrant children who will be helped by the city’s new initiative will be eligible for asylum because they fled dangerous situations, including gang-related violence and violence within their homes, to come to the United States for safety.  Others have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent in their home country and will be eligible for a special type of green card on that basis.  We are grateful for the City Council’s leadership and hope that the Unaccompanied Minor Children Initiative will inspire other cities with large populations of recently-arrived immigrant children to support the groups providing legal services to immigrant children in those cities too.

I would also like to thank the City Council for its recent initiative to place representatives of the city in the New York Immigration Court, and in the various legal clinics that have been taking place around the city, to help these children enroll in school and to sign up for health services.

Now I would like to bring the City Council’s attention to the mothers with young children who are also on fast-moving dockets in the New York Immigration Court.  At the same time that thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children fled to the U.S. and began making their way to New York City, thousands of mothers with very young children did the same.  Many of these women suffered domestic violence and/or gang-related violence in Central America and they fled with their young children to save their lives.  Many of these women will have asylum claims of a type that are difficult to present to a judge without a good lawyer.  If they are granted asylum, their young children will be granted asylum as derivatives.  The recent focus on the unaccompanied immigrant children makes sense, and the City’s efforts to help them are commendable.  Now it is time to help the women and young children who fled the same countries for similar reasons, and are just as desperately in need of pro bono legal representation.

My understanding is that the city’s Unaccompanied Minor Children Initiative does not provide legal representation for unaccompanied immigrant children who live outside of the five boroughs, even if their cases are venued in the New York Immigration Court.  Many of the children on the new court dockets are living on Long Island or in upstate New York.  This is another population that needs assistance.

Human Rights First has a long history of providing asylum-seekers of all kinds and children in need of protection with pro bono legal representation. We run one of the largest pro bono legal representation programs in this country to bring volunteer lawyers together with indigent refugees and children in need of protection to represent them in their immigration court proceedings.  Our unique approach—which combines helping asylum seekers and other immigrants gain protection and legal status while also pressing for fair and humane national asylum and immigration laws and policies—has proven to be highly effective in saving lives and bringing about sustained and positive change in refugee protection and human rights.  Working in close coordination with our dedicated pro bono attorneys at top law firms, we have historically won over 90% of our cases, many of which are venued in the New York Immigration Court.

Human Rights First is also part of the Immigrant Representation Project (IRP), which is a collaborative effort to provide pro bono representation to asylum-seekers, children with claims for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and others in the New York Immigration Court.  Since 1992, the IRP has operated through a partnership between four groups—Human Rights First, The Legal Aid Society, Catholic Charities, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—to provide comprehensive screenings of individuals in removal proceedings and then to provide free legal representation to a number of those individuals.  This is the longest-running screening project of its kind in the country.  Since 2011, Human Rights First has also been running the Asylum Representation Project (ARP), which has increased the number of asylum-seekers in proceedings at the New York Immigration Court who benefit from our pro bono mentoring model.

Human Rights First uses a pro bono mentoring model in which our in-house asylum experts vet cases, match asylum clients with volunteer lawyers at the large law firms, and then train and mentor the volunteer lawyers in that representation.  Our focus on asylum and related forms of protection-based immigration helps us to stay at the cutting edge of this area of law and to maintain our very high success rate in those cases. We are confident that law firms in this city will continue to demonstrate support for our immigrant neighbors by providing pro bono legal representation to those who are indigent when that representation is supported by careful vetting of cases and experienced immigration attorneys who can mentor the pro bono attorneys in that representation.

Through our existing screening programs at the New York Immigration Court, Human Rights First and our IRP partner provides pro bono legal representation to many women with children, including those fleeing violence in Central America.  The IRP collaborative also takes on some cases of unaccompanied children who live outside the five boroughs and have their cases at the immigration court downtown.  However, both populations at the New York Immigration Court have increased dramatically in recent months.  We encourage foundations and others with capacity to fund legal representation for immigrants, to keep in mind the immigrant children who reside outside of the city and the women with their young children who live right here and are in desperate need of our help.  We also hope that the New York City initiatives encourage other municipalities to follow your lead with respect to those living outside of the five boroughs.

We are grateful to the New York City Council and its Committee on Immigration for the opportunity to testify about the city’s response to the needs of recently-arrived unaccompanied immigrant children and we look forward to further discussion on this important topic.

Thank you.

Testimony

Published on September 30, 2014

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