Testimony by the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG)

Before the New York City Council Committee on Immigration

Oversight – Resources for Unaccompanied Minors

New York Legal Assistance Group

December 9, 2015

Chairman Menchaca, Council Members, and staff, good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak about resources for unaccompanied minors in New York City. My name is Helen Drook, and I am a Senior Staff Attorney in the Immigrant Protection Unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers. NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, veterans, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, people with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBTQ community, Holocaust survivors, as well as others in need of free legal services.

NYLAG commends the City Council for its attention to the unaccompanied minor (UAM) crisis that surged in New York in the summer of 2014. Funding to provide legal services to children who are on the “surge docket” is vital to ensure that these children are represented, and we applaud the Council and the Robin Hood Foundation for their support. NYLAG attorneys have found, however, that there is a large subsection of UAMs who need assistance, but are not being seen on the docket because they were never detained at the border. Many of them are currently residing in New York City “under the radar” of immigration authorities. Without legal status, these children are at risk of trafficking, exploitation, and immigration fraud. Many of them are eligible for immigration relief that can lead to improved education and employment opportunities, as well as access to critical public health and other benefits. Unfortunately, there is a critical lack of public or private funding for services for these youth.

In order to reach those outside the docket, NYLAG launched a large-scale initiative to provide legal representation for immigrant minors. An expansion of NYLAG’s robust immigration law practice, this program is a direct response to the humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied children fleeing extortion, rape, gang violence and murder in Central America, mainly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In response to the UAM surge, NYLAG established a partnership with the New York Immigration Coalition to provide community-based large-scale legal clinics to serve immigrant youth in New York City who may not have appointments at the docket. NYLAG also began providing legal clinics at the New York City Council’s Key to the City events, where many different services are made available to immigrants in one place within their communities. We are thrilled that the City Council recognized the critical importance of the legal component of the Key to the City events, funding NYLAG to provide clinics at all of the events in FY2016. NYLAG serves hundreds of youth and their families through these and many other community clinics each year.    Children and their families screened at the clinics are provided with comprehensive services, including application assistance and legal representation when possible. Our immigrant youth legal clinics use a model that combines staff participation with that of pro bono attorneys and volunteers, allowing us to provide services to a significant number of clients, and to do so in the most efficient way.

NYLAG represents many UAMs in Immigration Court and before the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS). We have youth clients as young as seven years old who have crossed the border alone, without an adult, because they had no other option but to flee horrendous child abuse, political violence, and organized crime in their countries. Many of these immigrants are eligible to apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), but some are eligible for forms of relief that have a direct path to citizenship, such as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and asylum. In fact, we find that many of the clients who come to NYLAG clinics seeking DACA assistance are actually eligible for SIJS, a permanent immigration legal status, because they were previously abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both of their parents. NYLAG serves some of these clients under existing grants, but provides the majority of the service in-kind because of the time-sensitive nature of the work. Because the significant need continues to outpace available funding, increased resources are needed for this type of complex representation for UAMs.

In early October of this year, thanks to funding from a private donor specifically for this purpose, a team of NYLAG staff traveled to the detention center located in Dilley, TX to provide services to women and children detainees. As part of the CARA Pro Bono Project, a group consisting of the Catholic Immigration Legal Network, the American Immigration Council, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, NYLAG staff volunteered for a week, preparing immigrants for their credible fear interviews, doing general intake, and observing the conditions at the detention center. NYLAG served more than 500 clients in that week, and the number of detainees at the detention center has remained consistently around 2,000. Many of these detainees may end up in New York, and will require legal representation and application assistance.

Beyond legal help, these children will need a host of other services – medical and mental health services, education and English services, and youth services. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a majority of children are the victims of either physical or sexual abuse during their journey north. Access to basic medical and mental health services is critical as many have endured serious injuries or suffer from severe mental trauma. It will also be critical to help children and their families navigate school systems and enroll in bilingual schools close to home, and access English as a Second Language (ESL) programming. Lastly, these children need ways to connect with other children facing similar situations, and would greatly benefit from access to recreational and youth-focused community services for all of these children.

There is no clear end to the unaccompanied minor crisis. As one of the City’s largest and most innovative immigration legal service providers, NYLAG is committed to continuing its work to screen and represent these 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.

Respectfully submitted,

New York Legal Assistance Group