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Central American migrants underrepresented in court

By Aubrie Iverson

VoiceBox Media


What happens when war, broken families and a spike in illegal border crossings combine?

For the 110,000 children and families apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border last summer, the result is back logged immigration cases, some with court dates as far out as 2019, and some that have been cancelled altogether.

More than 10,622 unaccompanied children and 16,329 adults with children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in June alone last summer, outpacing the typical 4,000 monthly arrests, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Mothers, families and lone children were running not only from the Mexican drug cartel violence, but from the bloodthirst and corruption in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, three nations with some of the highest rates of murder in the world.

Now that the migrants are in the United States, their stories have shifted from life on the run to a race for legal counsel.

Justin Estep, director of Immigration Legal Services at Catholic Charities of Central Texas, estimates that the majority of unaccompanied minors that made their way onto U.S. soil last year have already been placed with a family member and are no longer detained, but their fight is still not over.

The “right to an attorney” Americans are given upon arrest isn’t guaranteed to migrants — and it’s certainly not guaranteed to the children and families currently occupying the 3,600 beds in family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas alone.

“The number one issue is legal representation,” Estep said.

Estep’s concerns for counsel are not unfounded.

Data released in 2014 by the Executive Office of Immigration Review suggests that more than 90 percent of minors who were called to court were unable to attain legal counsel, greatly diminishing their chance of winning a legal right to stay in the U.S.

Contributing to the overwhelming case load and severe shortage of attorneys is the decision of the Department of Justice to expedite the cases of minors and families and push back other cases, sometimes with no new court dates.

The San Antonio Immigration Court has been one of the hardest-hit areas, with 12,669 cases received, such as visa applications or deportation orders.

Only 7,140 cases were completed during 2014, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review’s statistical yearbook. The only courts with more cases received were Los Angeles, New York City, Houston, the Houston Service Processing Center and San Francisco.

That disappointing completion rate — only about 56 percent — is being battled by pro bono and “low bono” attorneys across Texas.

Groups such as Catholic Charities of Central Texas and the Bernardo Kohler Center, both based in Austin, offer services to migrants at significantly reduced costs or on a sliding scale, if not completely free of charge. They try never to turn an unrepresented child away.

Catholic Charities of Central Texas received a $5,000 grant from the Austin Bar Association in 2014, which Estep said was exhausted in a matter of months. The organization recently received a new grant for 2015 in the amount of $80,000 from Impact Austin to help with staffing, service hours and technological equipment.

Estep said “the biggest hurdle is finding funding sources” to cover the costs of existing cases that their $40 per hour fee doesn’t.

The Bernardo Kohler Center also struggles to fund the personnel it takes to conqueror their overwhelming case load.

The organization, which represents cases spanning from Bryan/College Station to Laredo, has a current case listing of nearly 400 — and only two attorneys on staff. The center works with the Mexican Consulate in Austin in turn for some funding, and recently received a $20,000 grant from the State Bar of Texas for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

The grants and the outside sponsorship is still not enough to catch up.

Bernardo Kohler trains outside attorneys to do pro bono work and Catholic Charities attorneys refer migrants to outside organizations such as RAICES, American Gateways and Refugee Services of Texas when resources are just too tight.

Bernardo Kohler Center Executive Director David Walding, who said they have seen a “great increase” in their case load over the last 18 months, believes the attempts to expedite child and family cases since July 2014 has done little more than caused a mess.

“They are trying to take two to three years of backlog and adjudicate them all at once,” he said. “The reaction made it so much worse than if it had just progressed naturally.”

What these groups have in common is their hard work on the specialized cases that Central American minors and families face. Immigration law, like much legislation, is varied and complex. Cases can range from family petitions to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to Special Immigrant Juvenile visas, which make up more than half of the cases represented by Bernardo Kohler.

“We don’t only represent juveniles,” said Walding, who deals directly with many of the cases in addition to the responsibilities of his executive director position. “But we prioritize juveniles.”

{Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series – Children on the Edge – produced by Texas State University interns for VoiceBox Media in partnership with the Austin American-Statesman, Latina Lista and other media organizations. The series will examine how six Texas communities are responding to the number of migrant children and their families who have fled their Central American homes. If you have questions, or would like to reach the reporter, please email}

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