January 26, 2015; The Gazette (Montgomery County, MD)

With thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States to flee from hardships and violence in Central America, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., is working hard to get the children the support they need. Legal support, that is.

Montgomery County, Maryland, is calling on lawyers and organizations in the area to help represent these children pro bono as they move through the arduous and tedious process of obtaining legal permission to remain in the country. As such, the program will be giving some volunteer lawyers who lack experience in immigration or family law the training they need to properly represent the children.

We have approximately 1,200 young people who are caught in this web,” said County Executive Isaiah Leggett. “We want to move them through the legal process, hopefully to obtain a Green Card, but in order to do that, they need to legal representation.”

Leggett asked a room full of interested lawyers during a press conference for their help in securing legitimate representation for the minors. “We need to act and we need to act in an urgent manner.”

In addition to lawyers, the County is asking for assistance from paralegals and other volunteers as well. According to the senior program manager at Catholic Charities’ Legal Services Program, Jacqueline Rishty, the organization has already has 13 lawyers working on cases of the unaccompanied minors; however, there are an additional 85 cases that still need volunteers.

To fully understand the value of this legal aid, we may first need to trace the problem back to its root causes. What is bringing these children here in the first place? Why are some unaccompanied by their parents? And how does their background influence their status as undocumented children?

Throughout the past decade, violence, particularly that perpetuated by gang activity, has reached critical levels in Central America. Many are escaping gang threats, poverty, or abuse by family. During this time, migration from the region to the United States has also increased by 50 percent.

“Victims of the current crime wave, as well as those victimized by the pervasive corruption that has accompanied the crime wave, are increasingly likely to consider migration as a viable means of escape from their current situation,” according to a study published through Vanderbilt University last year.

As such, many of these migrants are coming over without a guardian or an individual invested in their case. However, the majority of children are not seeking asylum or visas for victims of crimes. Instead, Rishty says, most are applying for Special Immigrant Status for Children, a special visa category for minors who have been “abandoned, abused or neglected” and for whom “it is not in the child’s best interest to be returned to his or her country of nationality or last habitual residence.” Should they receive this status, the children will be able to retain legal residence in the United States.

With the help of Catholic Charities, this immigrant status opens doors that would otherwise be sealed shut. The children will have increased access to healthcare and education—though that path may be more of a challenge in Montgomery County, where the education budget is slated to be cut by half. Nevertheless, the initiative will undoubtedly prove useful for the children, who have already survived a great deal to make it to the States.

It’s certainly a rewarding experience,” said Lauren Wyatt, one of the volunteer attorneys.—Shafaq Hasan