Undocumented Kids Face Tough Legal Obstacles to Staying in U.S.
By Steven Cuevas, The California Report
There’s plenty of speculation over why so many young people are streaming into the U.S. illegally from Central America. Some believe it’s to escape violent organized crime, or that immigration authorities in the U.S. will treat youngsters with leniency when they cross the border. But undocumented kids face some tough legal obstacles no matter the reasons behind their flight.
Harol Canales, 22, was 15-years-old when he fled Honduras with his best friend about seven years ago.
“Only me and him, that’s it,” remembers Canales, speaking via cellphone while on a lunch break at work.
Like many of the undocumented children now arriving in the U.S. with no parents, no papers and little money, Canales was trying to escape the mounting threat of gang violence.
“It was super bad, very,” Canales says. “I did not want to stay there, something might happen to me so I just decided to just try to get here.”
Harol’s mother had arrived several years earlier and managed to obtain temporary protected status. His plan for getting to his mom was simple: “Keep walking and get to L.A.” He also hopped trains and caught rides. On his way to L.A., Harol was detained by immigration agents at a checkpoint on the Arizona-California border. But because he was still a child, authorities released him to his mother’s custody with a pledge that he appear at a deportation hearing.
“He came fearing gang violence and persecution by the gangs in Honduras,” says Harol’s Los Angeles attorney Alma Rosa Nieto. “So of course we presented that evidence in those claims.”
She says Harol’s best option to avoid deportation was to petition for asylum. But the burden of proof is high.
“Basically, show us that you would be killed, maimed, kidnapped or disappeared for us to grant you an asylum,” explains Nieto. “And of course very few people can show that high level of evidence when you’re fleeing, and he came as a child.”
After losing several appeals, Harol applied for temporary residency under 2012’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. His case is pending.
DACA is only available to young undocumented immigrants who were here before 2007, but Harol's case is not unlike many of the unaccompanied children and teenagers now being held in temporary detention centers across the U.S., including Naval Base Ventura County where about 500 teens are being held.
State Sen. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) is among a group of officials who visited the base last week. Torres says few, if any of the young detainees, understand the daunting legal challenges they face.
“Legal issues are the furthest things from their mind," Torres says. "You know they are very much kids. Children don’t know the legal process of this foreign nation, they only know that coming to the U.S. means an opportunity to live another day.”
An inability to understand their precarious legal situation is precisely why immigration lawyers need to reach them, says Kristen Jackson, a staff attorney with Public Counsel, a nonprofit legal aid group that sued the federal government with other groups last week on behalf of young immigrant detainees.
“In many, many cases the child is there alone, they have no lawyer to advocate for them," Jackson says. "They don’t understand the immigration laws, and so that’s what our lawsuit is about.”
The lawsuit aims to get the government to provide undocumented minors a court-appointed attorney.
“They have not recognized the children’s right to legal representation,” Jackson says. “So you have children appearing in immigration court in front of a judge and a trained attorney for the government.”
But John Feere says the government providing legal aid to undocumented minors or adults sends the wrong message. Feere is a policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.
“Right now we have a situation where only the worst of the worst are being deported,” Feere says. “So if you come here illegally and you generally abide by the laws, your odds of being deported are quite slim. And until that message changes, more people will risk their lives coming across the border.”
Feere is skeptical of promises from some federal officials that the tens of thousands of youngsters who’ve crossed into the U.S. illegally in recent months will be deported swiftly.
A White House spokesman said last week that most of the unaccompanied minors are unlikely to qualify for humanitarian relief and would face deportation. That’s troubling to Harol Canales.
“There (are) a lot of people who don’t want those kids in here,” Canales says. “But they’re just kids, you know? So I think everyone needs a chance.”
Shortly after he fled Honduras, Harol’s father and other relatives were killed in gang violence -- a cruel reminder of what he left behind.
Harol hopes authorities consider the danger today’s undocumented youngsters could face if their claims of asylum are also dismissed.