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Attorneys Concerned About Legal Access For Migrant Kids

Two female detainees sleep in a holding cell as children are separated by age group and gender. Hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held in Nogales, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

So far the federal government has not allowed volunteer attorneys to visit the Nogales, Ariz. facility housing about 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children. Now, attorneys say upcoming changes could make it even harder for these children to get legal counsel before they are returned to their home countries.

Since October, more than 50,000 migrant children, mostly from Central America, have crossed the border illegally without parents. Many surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol agents and now face an uncertain fate in this country.

When Phoenix-based immigration attorney Ruben Reyes heard some were being housed temporarily in a Nogales warehouse, he had an idea.

“What I was hoping to do is get attorneys who are willing to donate their time to go and offer these children housed in Nogales to give them a very basic legal education,” Reyes said.

Reyes got about 25 Arizona attorneys to volunteer to do “Know Your Rights” presentations at the facility.

They planned to explain to the children the basics of what is in store for them in deportation proceedings. Reyes said there is critical information these children must understand, such as the consequences of not appearing for their immigration court hearings and details about immigration law.

“If there is real fear, they need to express it,” Reyes said. “If they were victims of crime coming through or on this side of the border, they need to express that. All of these things could be avenues to immigration relief.”

But Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Nogales warehouse, ultimately denied Reyes and other attorneys access.

“I was contacted by CBP saying that that facility was pretty much off-limits,” Reyes said.

Customs and Border Protection would not comment for this story. An official speaking on background confirmed that attorneys generally aren’t allowed to visit with migrants in the agency’s custody.

The same official said attorneys have an opportunity to meet with children later in the process, once they are transferred to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

But those shelters are much smaller than the Nogales facility, making it harder for attorneys to address a big group of children at once.

Meanwhile, attorneys in other states have been gaining access to emergency shelters set up on military bases for child migrants. Those facilities are run by HHS, rather than CBP.

Phoenix attorneys Ruben Reyes and Alma Montes de Oca wanted to provide legal training to migrant children in Nogales, Ariz., but were denied access to the processing center where they are being held.

On Monday, the Oklahoma City branch of Catholic Charities is set to begin conducting legal training for about 1,200 children housed at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla. The Texas nonprofit RAICES has been doing legal trainings and screenings for a similar number of children housed at Lackland Air Force Base for the past month.

“We have identified that a majority of children we have screened are eligible for a relief from deportation pursuant to our humanitarian law,” said Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of RAICES.

But Ryan says that doesn’t mean they’ll win their cases.

“The hurdle that will in many cases prevent children from accessing that justice is they are unable to connect with an attorney or representative who is competent and affordable in order to allow them to prepare those requests for humanitarian protection," Ryan said.

There are usually no government-funded attorneys available to represent immigrants in immigration court. But last month, the Department of Justice announced it would begin a program with AmeriCorps to hire about 100 attorneys and paralegals to provide free legal help to the most vulnerable migrant children.

While many advocates applauded that effort, they also expressed concern the new initiative would only help a fraction of the tens of thousands of children in need of legal counsel.

Now Ryan and others are concerned that a new set of proposals by the Obama administration could make it even harder for some kids to consult with attorneys or get a fair shake at arguing their case.

When Congress comes back from its recess this week, the Obama administration is expected to ask to change a statute so the deportation process for Central American children can be sped up.

It’s not clear yet what those changes will be, though President Barack Obama provided some hints in a letter he wrote to Congress on June 30.

The changes could mean children arriving at the border from Central American countries would be screened early by border agents. If agents are not convinced the children have a fear of persecution at home or were trafficked, those children could be sent back to their home countries quickly without seeing a judge.

That is currently the process in place for children arriving from Mexico, but has not been the procedure for children from non-contiguous countries.

Reyes said if this change in procedure goes through, it will be all the more critical that attorneys be allowed into the Nogales facility so they can talk to children early in the process to explain their rights.

“Denying them any kind of legal information to me is kind of like denying them food and water, because they are going to need this,” Reyes said. “It may determine whether they stay here or whether they return to their country and who knows what happens, whether they live and die there.”

Reyes said child migrants may not be forthcoming when they speak to those border agents because they don’t want to speak about the trauma they’ve endured.

“Maybe because they want to be tough, maybe because they don't want to expose what happened in their home country,” Reyes said. He said that means the government could send back children who are in need of protection.

But some on the other side of the debate argue that a long, drawn-out court process which can take years only serves to encourage more illegal migration.

“It’s possible to do due process quickly without abusing anybody’s rights,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.

Vaughan would welcome changes to speed up and streamline the deportation process for kids arriving at the border — even if it means they don’t all see a judge.

“The constitution does not necessarily provide all of these illegal crossers with full access to our immigration courts to their hearts' content,” Vaughan said.

The Obama administration will also be asking Congress for additional funding to address the child migrant crisis. Those efforts include cracking down on the smuggling rings bringing the children over.