Testimony: Crisis of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

Testimony by Irina Matiychenko, Director of Immigration Protction Unit, Before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration
Oversight – Crisis of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children: What is New York Doing?
September 29, 2014

Chair Menchaca, Councilmembers, and staff, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak about the New York Legal Assistance Group’s response to the crisis of unaccompanied immigrant children. My name is Irina Matiychenko. I am the Director of the Immigrant Protection Unit at NYLAG.

Founded in 1990, NYLAG is one of the largest providers of free civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers. This past year, our staff of more than 250 professionals served over 76,000 people. NYLAG has always been at the forefront of responding to legal and humanitarian crises. We were the first legal services nonprofit to respond to the September 11th terrorist attacks, assisting hundreds of victims and their families. We were also one of the first organizations to help members of the Haitian community in New York following the devastating earthquake in Haiti. And most recently, we provided immediate legal assistance to more than 10,000 victims of Superstorm Sandy.

New York is now witnessing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the form of unaccompanied children fleeing extortion, rape, gang violence and murder in Central America, And NYLAG is again responding swiftly to help the victims. In August, we launched a large-scale initiative to provide legal representation for immigrant minors, as an expansion of NYLAG’s robust immigration law practice. We are proud to be a part of the legal nonprofit community in New York City that has galvanized so quickly in response to this crisis. For a number of weeks following its establishment, NYLAG attorneys volunteered at the surge docket. I commend my colleagues – the surge docket providers – for their outstanding coordination in ensuring unaccompanied children are screened when they appear at immigration court. I applaud the City Council’s recent decision to fund this work. It is well deserved. Although NYLAG was not funded through this initiative, this does not stop us from serving the cause we believe is most worthwhile – protecting children who are literally running for their lives.

NYLAG partnered with the New York Immigration Coalition to create a program that complements the court model, without duplicating the work of the surge docket providers. Our community-based, large scale legal clinics are held at schools, churches and other safe spaces. Children screened at these clinics do not require additional screening when they are called for their Master Hearings at immigration court. NYLAG also assists those who have been served with Notices to Appear, but who do not yet have court dates. This early intervention by qualified legal counsel is extremely important to prevent potentially serious consequences that could jeopardize these children’s chances for legal relief. In just one example from a recent clinic, we saw a brother and sister who entered the United States in July, were apprehended at the border and do not yet have a court date scheduled in New York. Both have very strong potential relief through Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). However, the sister celebrated her 20th birthday two days ago. In order for her to reap the benefits of SIJS, she must file her case prior to her 21st birthday. We took this family’s case on for full representation because without immediate assistance she may lose her chance to receive legitimate, permanent immigration status in the United States. This is a prime example of how early intervention provides invaluable proactive legal assistance to these children during a critical window of opportunity.

At these clinics, NYLAG screens not only unaccompanied minors, but also their family members, for potential immigration relief. Most of the children do not speak English and the vast majority of them are unable to understand the complexity and intricacy of U.S. immigration laws even in their native Spanish. They may not even be aware that they have pending court cases, and may not appear at a scheduled hearing, which often leads to very serious consequences. For example, at one of our clinics we checked one child’s Alien Registration Number in the system, and discovered that the Master Calendar Hearing for this family (a mother and two children) was scheduled in two days in Texas. This case required our immediate intervention – we filed a Motion to Change Venue with the Court in Texas by overnight mail. Our motion was granted, over the phone, the very next day. Thanks to our efforts, this young family avoided removal and now has the time and opportunity to build their legal cases for relief.

Our clinics are staffed jointly by NYLAG legal personnel and a large number of pro bono attorneys and volunteers. By leveraging the expertise of the City’s legal community NYLAG has been able to provide services to significant numbers of unaccompanied children – and do it effectively and efficiently. We advise children and their families about potential immigration relief, provide information about how to keep track of upcoming court dates, and make them aware of immigration fraud and unscrupulous practitioners – all in their native language, both verbally and in writing. NYLAG tracks every client in a database and triages their cases based on multiple factors, including urgency, type of relief, and strength of claim. Following the clinic, we pick up many of these cases for direct representation, and provide referrals to those we are not able to accept due to limited resources. To date we have accepted 40 of the most challenging and complicated cases, including asylum based on domestic violence, asylum based on gang violence, and SIJS based on parental abandonment. It is unfortunate that lack of funding does not allow us to provide direct representation to all those who are eligible for relief and desperately need it. In the cases we have accepted, we are relying solely on our attorneys’ dedication to this cause, and their willingness to spend long hours working overtime to help these clients.

In the course of the last three clinics we have seen and screened more than 500 unaccompanied children and their family members. Of these, only ONE individual had already been seen at the surge docket. At our August clinic in the Bronx, for example, we saw 132 unaccompanied children from Honduras, many of whom were already in removal, and 131 of whom were found have viable relief options. Despite our best efforts, more than 200 children were unable to be screened due to overwhelming demand.

Fighting for children’s right to counsel in immigration court proceedings is a primary objective for NYLAG and we are working at it on several fronts. We have reached out to members of Congress to gain their support for a proposed refugee program that would alleviate the effects of the border crisis, and bring relief to our overburdened immigration courts. We are also looking into potential class action to complement the work that is being done by our colleagues both in New York and in other states. To this end, we have been carefully documenting all procedural violations we see as children come over the border.

As one the City’s largest and most innovative immigration legal service providers, NYLAG is committed to continuing its work to screen and represent unaccompanied children.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to testify before this committee, and we look forward to continuing to partner with the New York City Council to ensure that all unaccompanied immigrant minors receive the access to justice they deserve.

Attached to this testimony are copies of the packet of information distributed to each attendee of NYLAG’s clinics for unaccompanied minors, as well as the screening packet used by NYLAG and pro bono staff at these clinics.