In 2014, ten-year old Tomas (not his real name) fled the rugged central highlands of Guatemala for a dangerous trip alone across the desert to the US border. Tomas is Mayan-Quiche, an indigenous people who speak their own language and, like indigenous people throughout Central America and elsewhere, live in isolation and poverty.

Tomas had been living with his grandmother, uncle, and several cousins since the age of four, when his parents went to the US in search of jobs. From the very beginning Tomas was the victim of repeated domestic violence at the hands of his uncle, who beat him regularly and verbally abused him. Tomas’ parents sent money to pay for his food and other necessities, and faithfully called him twice a week. He never had the courage to tell them about the beatings, or that his grandmother also abused him, forced him to clean the house, often making him skip school to keep up with the work, and limited his food rations while spending his parents’ money on alcohol and food for the rest of the family. He also never told them that two of his older cousins sexually abused him and forced him to watch pornography.

Tomas was terrified and alone when he finally crossed the border into Texas, where he promptly turned himself over to U.S. Customs and Patrol Border officers, telling them where he was from and asking them to call his parents in New York. After spending time in an immigrant shelter along with hundreds of other unaccompanied children, he was reunited with his family, and remembers the moment: “When I saw my mother and father for the first time in New York, we all cried.”

Tomas and his parents were together, but his ordeal was not over. The US government had started removal proceedings at the time of his detention, and he soon found himself summoned to Immigration Court in Manhattan. His parents could not afford to pay for an attorney, nor could they, as undocumented immigrants, secure a loan to cover the cost. So Tomas, accompanied by his parents, went to court without a lawyer.

Tomas’ situation is far from unusual. As the New York Times recently reported, thousands of children go to court alone hoping to be granted asylum or other forms of relief based on the violence and depravation that forced them to leave their home countries. Without a lawyer, their chances are not good: more than half of the unrepresented children in court between October 2014 and June 2016 were deported. Luckily, Tomas did not become part of that statistic.

Crystal Moncada

Crystal Moncada, Staff Attorney, Immigrant Protection

When he arrived at court in the spring of 2016, Tomas met with an attorney with New York’s Safe Passage Project, which represents unaccompanied minors in immigration court. She referred him to NYLAG staff attorney Crystal Moncada, who is with NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit and spends much of her time working with severely traumatized clients, especially children.

“My supervisor, Jennifer Barker, taught me the delicate art of gaining the trust of children who have entered the country alone, have been harmed by adults and have every reason to fear them,” said Moncada. “Jennifer taught me to use all kinds of techniques, like telling stories, playing silly games or getting a child to color in a coloring book. Only gradually do they start to trust me and I am able to ask the very tough questions about what had happened to them back in their home countries.”

Barker had earlier worked as an asylum officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, where she interviewed refugees and other immigrants applying for relief, including many indigenous immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. The experience taught her the value of patience.

“Indigenous people have historically been subjected to discrimination, violence and persecution. Many indigenous communities do not trust outsiders and some are private and stay a step removed as a way to survive,” said Barker. “Crystal is more than a good lawyer. She is sensitive communicator whose gentleness and genuine affection for her clients gives them the time they need to feel safe enough to tell her their story.”

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Moncada works closely with her supervisor, Jennifer Barker.

Several days after they met in court, Tomas spent time at NYLAG’s offices, where gradually he opened up to Moncada and told her what had happened to him, and why he could never go back to Guatemala. Moncada filed his application for asylum in April and it was approved in late July. Over the next two weeks, three more young Mexican and Guatemalan boys she represents, ages 15, 12 and 8 years, were also granted asylum.

“On my way back from the asylum office, Tomas’ mother told me she is so thankful for all the help NYLAG has provided to her son and that only God knows why her son was the fortunate one to be so blessed,” said Moncada. “I told her I feel like the lucky one to be able to work at NYLAG and help the most vulnerable population, our immigrant children.”