Unaccompanied minors continue to enter the United States

Matthew Powers

There was a panel  discussing the drastic spike in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the United States on Tuesday, Nov. 11. The panel was primarily concerned with what options minors have once they are detained at or near the border. On the panel was a third-year Villanova law student, a lawyer specializing in immigrant trafficking, another lawyer specializing in immigration law and a Villanova law professor, all of whom had plenty to say about the perils that minors face when they decide to leave their native lands.

Their first issue they addressed was why the youth beyond our borders feel it is necessary to embark on such a risky journey on their own. The simple answer to this question was that for many minors living in South and Central America the journey is worth the risk.

 In particular, the panelists discussed the excessive gang violence in countries like Honduras and Mexico, as well as the desire for these children to escape these conditions for something better. Another issue these children frequently face is domestic violence in their homes. 

One major contributing factor of these domestic issues is that many families are unable to support themselves due to conditions of extreme poverty. Seemingly with no other choice, they flee for America on his or her own.

In many cases these youngsters travel great distances on foot with little or no money. There are various trials and tribulations involved with such a journey, worst of which is dealing with the nefarious cartels that monitor the known routes across the border. Even if these minors somehow find a way to avoid them, there’s the added challenge of obtaining food. This often leads sojourners to beg or, in the case of females, sell their bodies. 

The panelists then explained that when border patrol agents finally find the brave young souls who’d embarked on such a peril-filled journey, they’re usually disheveled and quite frightened. But their journey is not yet over, for those who make the trip are more often than not attempting to reconnect to family members that had previously immigrated to the U.S. 

Finding the family members these children are seeking is one of the primary concerns for Border Patrol Agents. 

When minors are detained at the border they are put into an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility for only a short period of time (72 hours max) before being sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. 

This is done to limit their time in the ICE facility, which has been shown to be a traumatic experience in the lives of the minors detained there. One of the lawyers on the panel attested to this saying that one of her clients and was in a detention center at the age of 15 claimed to still have nightmares about the experience. 

Refugee Resettlement seeks the children’s best interest and sends them to shelters around the country. Once at a shelter, a relative of the minor is contacted allowing the minor to move in with said relative as soon as possible. Until this is done, the minor will stay in a foster-home like environment. 

Once they’re living with relatives, many minors attempt to gain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. This would allow them to gain citizenship in the United States, but to qualify it must be proven to the judge that the minor has been abused, neglected or abandoned and is merely seeking safety and protection in the United States. 

At this juncture in the discussion, the experts on the panel attested to how hard it is for a minor to gain SIJS with a lawyer and how it is nearly impossible to do so without one. 

Often, these proceedings to gain SIJS take place without the minor having representation, and the effort is thus fruitless. Although an ordinary citizen of the U.S. might note that one cannot be tried without representation, the proceedings often take place anyway. 

To understand how difficult it is to gain SIJS, one must put himself in the minors’ shoes. For the most part, underage immigrants and sometimes even their relatives in the United States only have working knowledge of the English language, yet they must obtain a lawyer and make a successful case for SIJS in both family court and immigration court.

Without SIJS, these minors may not have a chance to get schooling, driver’s licenses, employment or even medical insurance. The end result for many of these minors who can’t attain citizenship is that they are forced to work jobs with poor conditions or pay, due to the fact that they cannot provide proof of citizenship. 

Many under-the-table employers seek to take advantage of these workers without legal status because they have no other options. So, in essence, obtaining SIJS is vital for unaccompanied minors and the experts on the panel could not seem to stress this enough. 

Without SIJS the opportunities the unaccompanied minors seek in the United States are simply nonexistent. It is for this reason that the panelists fight so hard to help the minors obtain it. The panelists then directed the discussion to how difficult it is for minors to obtain SIJS, even with the help of a lawyer. The cases proceedings are sometimes halted by a judge’s predetermined unwillingness to involve themselves in cases with “illegals.” 

The experts on the panel said that in particular, judges in Chester County, Pa., which oddly enough has a large number of minorities, have been consistent in their decisions to not grant SIJS to individuals for exactly that reason. 

The lawyers insisted, however, that these cases are not a matter of politics as many minors are genuine in their testament that they have been abused or neglected which under the law entitles them to SIJS. It is particularly startling how hard it is for minors to gain citizenship, since there is really no legal way of doing it. 

In fact, a panelist was once asked to take a look at a petition of a Mexican citizen seeking to enter the U.S. and found that the petitions currently being looked at by the government were filed 17 years ago. For this panelist, the hardest part about advising this client was looking him in the eye and telling him that his petition was futile. With this in mind, we must consider the plights of these minors seeking to enter the country and escape the destitution of their native lands. Under such extreme duress it isn’t hard to imagine that anyone might also risk his or her life and break the law, in order to reach safety.