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Immigration: Court's tight deadlines frustrate attorneys

Lawyers across the nation are scrambling to piece together how President Barack Obama's recent executive action on immigration will affect their clients.

Lawyers across the nation are scrambling to piece together how President Barack Obama's recent executive action on immigration will affect their clients.

But so far, not much has changed for Central American minors who fled their home countries for the United States, said Laura Wilson, a Minneapolis attorney who represents four children.

Wilson's clients were placed by immigration officials with family members in Minnesota. She is trying to gather their stories about the violence that drove them across the border, bolster them with expert opinions and bring them to a federal immigration hearing.

And she has just a few weeks to do it.

Although the president's order could defer the deportation of millions of immigrants, it won't help more than 200 children in Minnesota on a "fast-track" docket federal authorities established for immigrant children. That gives attorneys little time to prepare a case.

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For Wilson, who works for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, and dozens of other lawyers in the state, that means the frantic pace of interviews, affidavits and legal research will continue.

 

TIGHT DEADLINES COMPLICATE WORK

The number of children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has surged from about 4,000 in fiscal year 2011 to more than five times that number in fiscal year 2013, according to a report from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

That influx has swamped immigration courts across the country. The Obama administration this summer declared the children a priority for deportation, and courts established accelerated dockets to speed up the process.

Typically, an unauthorized immigrant might have months before their first court appearance, said Steven Thal, a longtime immigration attorney in Minnetonka. Unaccompanied minors on the fast-track docket have to appear in court in a matter of weeks.

"So the court’s taking a much tighter control, if you will, of the calendar," Thal said. "In some cases it might take years to get to a final hearing, but in this case it might be months."

One of Wilson's clients, for example, is an 11-year-old girl from Honduras. The girl's father abused her as a baby, Wilson said, and she fled the country after he threatened her.

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Wilson, who took the case a few weeks ago, will file an application for asylum grounded in the girl's decision to flee the abuse.

Lawyers representing unaccompanied minors have to explain in detail the violence their clients would face if sent back to their home countries, but they don't have much time to draw those stories out.

"With these kids, it's like we have to get their story the first or second time that we meet or there’s not enough time," Wilson said.

Attorneys may also need to obtain corroborating stories from their clients' family members outside the country – an especially difficult task in a short timeframe.

 

COURTS RELUCTANT TO GRANT ASYLUM

Scrambling to file an application for asylum doesn't guarantee a child will win an asylum claim and remain in the United States.

Many of the Central American children cite gang violence as the reason they fled their countries. But immigration courts historically have been reluctant to offer protection on those grounds, said Sarah Brenes, a staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Aside from winning asylum for individual children, attorneys say changing case law to make gang-related violence cases easier is a main priority.

Making it easier to for children escaping violence to stay in the country would cut out the "complicated legal odyssey" currently required to win asylum, said Deepinder Mayell, director of the refugee and immigrant program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

The nonprofit group guides attorneys not used to representing unaccompanied children through the process. It has also trained more than 100 lawyers -- many of whom volunteer to help the children free of charge.

Jennifer Olson, a Minneapolis attorney who uses the mentor program, said patience is key to representing a child. She puts her young client at ease by talking about easier topics like school and family before moving into the specifics of why the child left home.

Priya Premo, another attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, uses a similar strategy. She also makes sure her clients know that she works for them, not for the government.

Attorneys say giving their clients a better shot at escaping violence is worth the challenges that come with representing them.

While the president's executive order centered on unauthorized immigrants, Mayell and many attorneys said they consider their clients refugees – a separate issue entirely.

"The types of violence that these kids are being subjected to are very similar to the violence that people around the world who are recognized as refugees have experienced," Wilson said.

Minnesota has a small number of such cases compared to other states. Federal authorities placed only 304 unaccompanied children in the state in fiscal year 2014, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, and some came from countries outside Central America.

Although dozens of attorneys have stepped up to represent the kids, Wilson said more help is needed.

"There's a real imperative for attorneys to be taking these cases," she said. "If we don't do it, then they may not be successful."

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Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Brainerd at 88.3 FM or at MPRnews.org.

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