Grant Pays Lawyers to Represent Undocumented Children


Karen Sloan, The National Law Journal

September 16, 2014

The arrival this summer of thousands of Central American immigrant children, like these housed at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Arizona, exacerbated an existing shortage of lawyers to help process immigration cases for unaccompanied minors. Now the Department of Justice has come up with money to help.Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP

For unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the United States, having a lawyer can make the difference between winning permission to stay and deportation. That harsh reality was true even before the recent wave of Central American children began surrendering on the Southwest border.

But the crush of new arrivals has inundated immigration courts and led to additional delays for children already here without a legal guardian and awaiting their day in court. Now the U.S. Department of Justice and a coalition of legal aid providers have launched an effort to provide attorneys for these unaccompanied children.

The department has set aside $1.8 million for a new AmeriCorps program that will send approximately 100 lawyers and paralegals into the field for two years each to represent such children in immigration proceedings.

“There is a huge issue with kids who came here a couple of years ago,” said David Stern, executive director of Equal Justice Works, the largest grant recipient. “When their hearings come up, they get deported without their claims being addressed. Having the opportunity to be able to present their claims is so important, and representation is critical.”

The bulk of the Justice Department grant—$1.2 million—Stern’s organization will share with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc.; Kids in Need of Defense; and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Equal Justice Works is a Washington nonprofit organization that supports public-interest law careers.

The remaining $600,000 will go to six legal aid providers around the country.

According to the Justice Department, the attorneys will serve children in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, El Paso, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego and Seattle.

By December, Equal Justice Works hopes to recruit 45 young attorneys and 10 paralegals, train them and send them to work at their partner organizations for two-year fellowships.

The fellows primarily will represent children who have been in the country for more than a year and are living with relatives—not those among the border influx who are being housed in government facilities, Stern said.

“The increasing numbers of unaccompanied children appearing in our immigration courts present an urgent challenge: how best to conduct immigration proceedings more efficiently while maintaining our commitment to following the procedures required by law and protecting the rights these children,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

A study of unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that they had legal representation in 52 percent of closed proceedings during the past decade. Less than one-third have been able to consult an attorney in pending cases.

Access to an attorney made a significant difference in outcomes. Children with lawyers were allowed to remain in the country in 47 percent of the cases, the study found. By contrast, only 10 percent of children without a lawyer were allowed to remain.

Deportation hearings can be a matter of life and death for children fleeing countries where they risk being recruited into gangs and face death threats, Stern said.

“Without a lawyer, judges don’t know how to elicit the relevant information and the kids don’t know how to provide it,” he said. “These kids are deer in the headlights in the court system.”

Equal Justice Works aims to recruit law graduates with some experience in immigration law while in law school, who speak Spanish and who want to pursue careers in immigration law. With only weeks to fill its roster of fellows, the organization is spreading the word among law schools and other immigration law programs.

For instance, organizers plan to work with New York City’s Immigrant Justice Corps to identify promising candidates that fledgling program lacked room for.

Stern expects to have far more applicants than the program can accommodate, in part because a large number of young lawyers want to practice immigration law but few positions are available.

The Equal Justice Works fellows will earn about $41,000 a year. The Justice Department covers $19,000 of that amount, but the organization raised an additional $1.7 million in private money for housing, transportation and food allowances. (AmeriCorps rules cap participant salaries at $24,000.)

The program can only recruit top candidates by supplementing the salaries covered by the Justice Department, Stern said. About 50 law schools have agreed to pay $5,000 each to support participating graduates from their own programs.

Fellows are expected to handle about 50 cases per year.

“This issue is huge. One hundred AmeriCorps Justice fellows will not solve the problem, but it will make a dent along with other things such as pro bono representation and reduced-rate representation,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. “We’re delighted with the program and ultimately I think it will save lives.”

Contact Karen Sloan at

Read more:

Leave a Comment: