As a Miami immigration lawyer, I get to witness firsthand the struggles of young people in the the immigration crisis. A new study shows that unaccompanied minor immigrants without legal representation have a 90% chance of being deported. Now, there are so many young unaccompanied immigrants fleeing gang violence in Central America that several Miami immigration advocates are calling it a true refugee crisis. More than 52,000 undocumented, unaccompanied minors have crossed the border this year since October. Many of these children, ranging in age from toddlers to older teenagers, have been transported to Miami for either placement or to plead their case to stay before an immigration judge.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to hire more immigration judges, establish shelters, tighten border security and for deportation, among other things. Immigration authorities find South Florida a conducive place for these children for several reasons. First, two Miami shelters have been designated for unaccompanied immigrant minors: Children’s Village run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami Inc. and the nonprofit, faith-based His House Children’s Home Inc. On average, immigrant children spend on average less than 30 days at shelters before being placed with a guardian, usually a family member. These shelters are consistently quiet, with good neighbors in the communities where they are located.
As an immigration lawyer who is also a Miami native, I can also attest to the fact that there are many Central Americans within the Miami community. Miami, Florida is a destination where distant family members would be present and could take care of the children. In addition, South Florida, because of its history, is welcoming to displaced children. Miami was a top destination for 14,000 Cuban children sent to Miami by their parents during Operation Pedro Pan from 1960 to 1962. One does not need to look any further than our very own city to see that the proof is in the pudding. Miami has protected the Cuban child refugees in the past. Our state has educated them, and these children have gone on to become successful businessmen and political leaders. Miami is an apt microcosm for the melting pot that the United States. For the most part, we are the children of immigrants. Many other Miami immigration attorneys would agree that the main reason these children are coming is because of violence in Central America by organized gangs. In many instances, children are literally taken from their home and forced to participate in the criminal activity, and if they don’t their family will suffer retribution. One should note that Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are the among the five most dangerous countries to live in the world.
Legal Representation of Immigrant Children
As with many other immigration lawyers in Miami, Florida, I am of the opinion that despite an overburdened system, legal representation is essential for the immigrant children. As of now, immigration judges routinely hear juvenile cases four times a month, but that may be changing shortly. Trac Immigration, which compiles immigration data, recently reported 90 percent of the unaccompanied minor illegal immigrant children who lack legal representation are deported. In contrast, only 47 percent of the children who receive representation are sent home. Immigration may be one of the defining news event of the mid-term elections. As such, there is plenty of finger pointing as more unaccompanied minors stream across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Republicans blame Obama for leaving Central American families with the impression their children will be allowed to stay in the United States. Democrats in Washington point to House conservatives failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform and note it was a 2008 anti-trafficking law that made it hard to automatically deport this influx of Central American immigrant children. On Friday, anti-immigrant activists in small numbers held protests throughout South Florida, holding signs such as “Stop Invasion.” At another protest over a planned shelter in Michigan, some demonstrators carried semi-automatic weapons.
Conservative lawmakers and websites have fanned the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, calling on Obama to send the National Guard to the Texas border and claiming immigrant children carry the Ebola virus, which doesn’t exist in Central America. In Arizona, a Republican congressional candidate protested a bus he thought was full of migrant children. They were Americans heading to a YMCA camp. Fox News, which has been leading its website with the crisis nearly daily, reported, “Illegal immigrant children may soon call multimillion-dollar hotel home,” replete with descriptions of its many pools and amenities. The last paragraph reported plans called for filling in the pools. The would-be shelter deal was pulled after the story. These protests and hyperbolic news coverage are disturbing. The children who are fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries deserve a chance. As a practicing immigration attorney in Miami, we have to look at what is in the best interest of the children and leave the broader immigration issues for later.