Immigration

Unaccompanied immigrant minors will continue to have legal representation

Young migrants walk along the train tracks near the migrant shelter El Samaritano in Bojay, Mexico on October 16, 2015.
Young migrants walk along the train tracks near the migrant shelter El Samaritano in Bojay, Mexico on October 16, 2015. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

A contract dispute that had threatened to disrupt efforts in Miami to provide legal services to unaccompanied Central American children has been resolved.

The federal government contract was awarded to an organization that will subcontract the work to two veteran nonprofit groups: Americans for Immigrant Justice and Catholic Legal Services (CLS).

This means the work of the two groups will continue as before, and there will be no change.

Previously, the contract was temporarily awarded to another organization that intended to subcontract it to a group that had no prior experience in delivering legal services to migrant minors.

The issue had sparked alarm among immigrant rights advocates, nonprofit groups and religious leaders, including Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski — especially at a time when there has been a surge of unaccompanied Central American children.

“This is unacceptable,” Archbishop Wenski said in a letter — before resolution of the issue — to Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health & Human Services (HHS) — the federal department that oversees the unit that handles services for unaccompanied children, the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

After learning that the issue had been settled, Wenski expressed satisfaction.

This should have always been about the best interests of the children, and the fact that the lawyers who are most familiar with the cases are now able to continue with their cases shows that Washington listened.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski

“This should have always been about the best interests of the children, and the fact that the lawyers who are most familiar with the cases are now able to continue with their cases shows that Washington listened,” Wenski said.

Between Oct. 1, 2015, and Jan. 31, 2016, at least 20,455 unaccompanied minors crossed the border, compared to about 10,105 between Oct. 1, 2014, and Jan. 31, 2015.

When the contract issue arose last fall, Americans for Immigrant Justice and CLS — two respected nonprofits that for years have provided attorney services for immigrant unaccompanied children — saw their funding cut off and some services temporarily awarded to a different contractor, according to people familiar with the matter.

Americans for Immigrant Justice and CLS only had remaining funds to cover their 500 existing cases for a few more months, and together the two agencies have 800 children facing deportation on their waiting lists.

Miami has the third busiest immigration court docket for unaccompanied children cases in the country.

Children who appear before a judge without an attorney are far more likely to be ordered deported than those who have a lawyer.

The problem arose when the Office of Refugee Resettlement announced plans to modify the prior award, making it competitive and combining contracts for shelter services and court cases.

In the previous year, both Americans for Immigrant Justice and CLS had received government funding through a one-year pilot program to help hundreds of unaccompanied children with their court cases. Together these two groups had a combined 20 attorneys and eight paralegals dedicated to helping children under the contract that expired in September.

Vera, the organization that for more than a decade had subcontracted with Americans for Immigrant Justice to provide legal services to unaccompanied minors in South Florida shelters, applied for the combined contract, and added CLS to the proposal.

Americans for Immigrant Justice and CLS were told that they would provide the services if Vera won the contract.

But another organization, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), also applied for the contract.

In September, the Office of Refugee Resettlement awarded the contract to USCRI — a decision that stunned people who monitor unaccompanied children cases because the organization that USCRI picked to assist the children was a group that had no immigration attorneys on its staff.

In October, Vera filed a bid protest of the September decision, and HHS subsequently released a new bid request.

That bid went to Vera, instead of USCRI.

Americans for Immigrant Justice and CLS had no comment, but spokespersons for USCRI and HHS confirmed that the contract had gone to Vera.

Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @AlfonsoChardy

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