The crisis of the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border is being felt across the United States, with Miami one of 10 cities where children are being sent for immigration proceedings as border shelters fill up.
The transfer of arriving immigrant minors to South Florida shelters is taxing the services of nongovernmental organizations that assist immigrants, according to immigration attorneys.
Children have arrived in the United States without their parents for decades, but over the past two years the flow has become a veritable flood of youths — mostly from Central America — crossing the border in groups and sometimes with the help of adult migrant-smugglers. Their numbers are so large that earlier this month President Barack Obama called the situation a humanitarian crisis.
“Last year, we were already extremely overwhelmed by the increase in unaccompanied minors arriving and ending up in shelters in Miami,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, formerly known as the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. “About three months ago, the Office of Refugee Resettlement began increasing the number of beds in the Miami shelters, almost tripling the number of children who need legal assistance.”
AI Justice, as Little’s group is known, is one of several NGOs in South Florida that represent immigrants, especially minors. For years, Little’s organization has helped young immigrants resettle in the United States after fleeing their home countries.
The surge of unaccompanied children has put AI Justice at the forefront of renewed efforts to provide the children with legal means not only to avoid deportation but also to stay in the country as lawful permanent residents — a status that enables them to seek citizenship later.
Federal officials say that almost 50,000 children had crossed the border without their parents since Oct. 1, almost double the number over the same period a year earlier. The administration has assigned the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate the response.
The administration also agreed to allow attorneys to represent some of the children, a victory for groups like AI Justice, which for years have advocated for free legal representation for immigrant children before U.S. immigration courts. Legal counsel is not mandatory for those in deportation proceedings.
On Friday, the office of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., released letters he sent to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and to the ambassadors from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras expressing concern about the surge of children across the border.
“Like most Americans, I am outraged and saddened by the ongoing humanitarian and national security crisis on the southwest border,” Rubio told Johnson. “However, I am concerned by how this catastrophe seems to have caught the Administration off guard and without an adequate mitigation plan.”
Citing an example, Rubio wrote that the surge “stands in contrast” to the administration’s assurances that the border was “already secure.”
A report issued in November by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that while the number of unaccompanied children detained by immigration authorities averaged about 6,600 in fiscal years 2004 through 2011, the number of children apprehended jumped to more than 13,000 in fiscal year 2012 and to more than 24,000 in fiscal year 2013, with the number rising even more this year.
As border facilities fill up, many children are being sent to shelters in non-border cities, including Miami, said Little and Michelle Abarca, AI Justice’s directing attorney for the group’s Children’s Legal Project.
Abarca said that last year, AI Justice served approximately 1,600 children locally, a figure that will be surpassed very soon.
The children are being housed at three local shelters — a place formerly known as Boys Town, His House Children’s Home and a new facility for young kids.
“Within the last month, we learned that 98 more children’s beds were being added in Miami and were asked whether we could handle the added work,” said Little. “We’re committed to helping these children even if it means putting in long hours.”
In addition, AI Justice has seen a dramatic increase in the number of children released from shelters in other parts of the country and resettled in South Florida.
Little also said the surge of children has made the job of immigration attorneys much more difficult.
“Our job is to provide these children with advice about their basic legal rights and then to interview each child to determine whether or not they have a legitimate claim for relief [to remain in the United States],” Little said. “Representing children is particularly challenging because if they’ve been abused for years, as many of our clients have, they may not understand that it’s important to tell us about the abuse, because it’s normal to them.”
Their legal cases, Little added, present further complexities involving human-trafficking laws, federal immigration laws and state child welfare laws.
While critics of the Obama administration claim the children are coming to get a green card if and when Congress enacts immigration reform, Little and Abarca said that is not the case.
“They are coming because of the increase in violence and lack of adequate protections for children in these countries,” said Abarca.
Added Little: “Many children have been targeted by vicious gangs.”
Both said that a number of the fleeing children also report violence at home.
“A lot of the children come here because they suffer domestic violence, abuse, neglect and abandonment back home,” said Abarca. “Many don’t have a mother or father caring for them. They are severely mistreated. A lot of the girls report being raped back home, being raped on the way here. For them, it’s a matter of life or death.”