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Maryland Legal Community Looks For Attorneys For Undocumented Immigrant Children

Bret Jaspers

This summer, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrant children fled poverty and brutal gang violence in Central America to come to the U.S. Over three thousand are in Maryland, and the vast majority of those are now with their families. But can they stay? The answer to that question may depend on whether or not they get an attorney.

In Annapolis last week, lawyers from around the state became students again. The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland held a training session for attorneys who have volunteered to represent at least one undocumented child, free of charge.

Immigrants who face deportation can have a lawyer, but the government does not have to provide one. This is huge. A New York study showed that immigrants facing deportation there were five times as likely to win with a lawyer. Jennifer Larrabee, Deputy Director of the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland, said that an increased rate of success is not unique to immigration cases. “When people have an advocate to help them navigate the legal process,” she said, “they are much more likely to succeed on the merits.”

There are a few legal avenues the children can pursue. Asylum is one, if a child is part of a persecuted group. Asylum can be hard to prove, however. Gang violence alone doesn’t necessarily equal persecution. There are also visas for victims of crime and human trafficking. But last week’s training focused largely on another path: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). Created by Congress in 1990, the SIJS process starts in state court, as opposed the the federal immigration court system. If a state judge finds that one or both parents abused, neglected or abandoned a child, that child can then apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status with the federal government. It puts them on a path to permanent residency.

Adonia Simpson, Managing Attorney for Immigration Legal Services at the Esperanza Center in Baltimore, says it was a “very wise decision” of Congress to give state family courts the authority to make the determination of abuse, abandonment or neglect in cases that involve undocumented children. “These are the jurisdictions that are making decisions about the best interests of children every day, in and out,” she said.

State family courts, though, are very different from federal immigration courts. Attorney Elsa Clausen of Harford County, who attended the training, said she has worked on employment and wage cases with undocumented clients, but hasn’t been before a state court. She said a challenge is knowing the actual statutes, but also “knowing what county, what judge—they all like things prepared a certain way.”

To calm the nerves, instructors repeatedly told volunteers that mentoring will be available. The 134 lawyers that took the training must accept at least one pro bono case in the next year, or pay $200 for the class.

There are other efforts to get more lawyers. Last month the Obama Administration allocated 9 million dollars for legal aid. The Baltimore region will get a chunk of that. Governor Martin O’Malley encouraged Maryland lawyers to volunteer, although the state has not increased legal aid money since the crisis, as California has. (The state does have a bilingual website with information about services for undocumented children here). And there will be other trainings like this one.

Adonia Simpson said that if volunteers can get past the fear of the unknown, the work is rewarding. “Seeing the look in a child’s face when you get their removal proceedings terminated and they get their green card and they realize they’re not gonna be deported from this country? It’s an amazing feeling.”

At the end of the day, twenty cases found a volunteer; twenty more children that will have a lawyer in court.

Check out Maryland Morning’s interview with Adonia Simpson and Jennifer Larrabee: