Central Americans Learn About the Law

After crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a Salvadoran woman will wear a Homeland Security ankle bracelet until she appears in immigration court in three to four months, she was told. (Photo by Mo Krochmal for Voices of NY)

After crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a Salvadoran woman will wear a Homeland Security ankle bracelet until she appears in immigration court in three to four months, she was told. (Photo by Mo Krochmal for Voices of NY)

Just inside a meeting room at the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, New York, a young woman sat with a girl on her lap and an electronic monitoring device strapped around her left ankle.

“I am happy [to be in New York], but this thing bothers me, makes me feel uncomfortable,” the Salvadoran woman, 23, told Voices of NY, in Spanish, pointing to her ankle. “They told me they put it on in case I attempt to leave the state.”

NYIEAlong with 20 other adults and children, she was in the second-floor office of the Central American Refugee Center, or CARECEN, a nonprofit immigration resource center, to attend their first informational meeting July 17 for the recent surge of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. They are all adjusting to life in New York – and in need of legal advice.

The young mother had been apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border 15 days before with her 5-year-old daughter, after being smuggled on a boat with “coyotes” who routinely cross the Rio Grande. She will wear the ankle bracelet for 3 to 4 months, she said she was told.

“I thought these were used for criminals only,” the woman said, pointing to the tether. Another Salvadoran woman, added, as if in solidarity, “Lately, they’re putting [an ankle bracelet] on everyone.”

The young Salvadoran asked that her name not be used and did not want her face to be photographed, like many attending the meeting.

She is one of the reported tens of thousands of migrants crossing the U.S. borders, most of them coming mainly from the Northern Triangle of Central America. They request asylum and humanitarian protection along the southwestern border in the U.S., and come carrying addresses of family members across the country with the hope that they will be reunited.

The surge of Central Americans crossing the southern borders in such numbers is overwhelming the capacity to care for and to process them, creating a crisis that seems to grow by the day as new migrants arrive. The Department of Homeland Security has said that some agencies will exhaust their budgets by next month.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, passed in 2008, grants unaccompanied minors from noncontiguous countries the right to immigration hearings and the chance to seek legal advice. President George Bush signed the anti-human trafficking bill before he left office, legislation that was supported by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers.

The recent surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America has meant that because unaccompanied minors cannot be deported immediately, they must be taken into the protection of the Department of Health and Human Services, given the chance for an immigration hearing, and the process of being reunited with family members in the U.S. must begin.

The White House and congressional committees are seeking to make revisions to the law to stop the unprecedented surge of children that has overwhelmed the border.

Protests against the immigrants are taking place across the U.S., while religious groups of all creeds are stepping in to help as thousands of unaccompanied children arrive in a new land, often alone, and with few resources.

(Illustration by Can of Creative via UC Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies)

(Illustration by Can of Creative via UC Hastings Center for Gender & Refugee Studies)

More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the border since October, and the total for fiscal year 2014 is expected to reach 90,000, according to advocacy agency Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) and the University of California Hastings Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.

Advocacy Rooted in Long Island

CARECEN has at least three or four more walk-ins and calls per week “since the crisis began,” said Elise Damas, coordinator of Pathway to Citizenship Long Island, one of three attorneys at the Hempstead center.

The day’s event was a word-of-mouth gathering.

“We don’t advertise at all,” Damas said. “We don’t need to.”

At the start of the meeting, and to put everyone at ease, Damas asked the seated crowd, in perfect Spanish, for a show of hands for countries of origin, using their nations’ nicknames:

How many chapines are here? (a few Guatemalans’ hands shot up)

How many salvatruchas? (a strong showing of hands from Salvadorans)

And catrachos? (a sole hand went up from a Honduran woman)

Elise Damas is a lawyer for the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, N.Y. (Photo by Mo Krochmal for Voices of NY)

Elise Damas is a lawyer for the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, N.Y. (Photo by Mo Krochmal for Voices of NY)

But the good humor was replaced by the serious nature of the evening’s business: free legal advice for the migrants who recently made it to the Long Island area of New York. Simple instructions and tips followed.

The lawyers advised the adults with children under 21 to apply for Special Immigration Juvenile Status (SIJS). The immigration classification is available to the underaged who have been “abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents” or in circumstances in which it is “not in the best interests of the minor to return to his/her country of nationality or last habitual residence.”

The lawyers also made it clear that, despite what they may have heard in their country of origin, it is a “myth” that every immigrant can stay.

The crowd listened attentively, pulling out manila envelopes with printed documents, and took notes as Damas and staff attorney Wende Cooper answered questions from the attendees, including from a woman with two children, whose immigration notice asks her to show up for a court hearing in Colorado; she now lives in New York.

“Let’s talk after [the meeting],” Damas said. “You need to get a change in location as soon as you can.”

With so many people fleeing their home countries, Cooper instructs clients to pay special attention to any legal documents and communications, she told Voices of NY the day after the meeting.

She said the New York immigration courts are so overwhelmed right now that migrants will be placed on a master calendar, only to later be assigned an individual court date, before a court will listen to the merits of their argument.

“Some of those calendars are years in the future – just a few years to be heard in court,” Cooper said.

The immigration process will depend on what kind of release they are trying to obtain. The Hempstead session provided an overview of the immigration laws that may pertain to recent migrants, depending on their case. Receiving asylum, for instance, could take about a year.

And there’s this caveat: You have to prove that you have the legal right to stay in this country.

The CARECEN lobby displays a map of Central America. (Photo by Mo Krochmal for Voices of NY)

The CARECEN lobby displays a map of Central America. (Photo by Mo Krochmal for Voices of NY)

While migrants are waiting, they can remain here and cannot be sent back to their countries of origin. But Cooper warns that if a recent migrant commits a crime or is convicted of one during their wait, they almost certainly face deportation.

More Central American Immigrant Cases Every Day

CARECEN and other nonprofit immigration organizations, human rights organizations and pro bono lawyers have been overloaded with new cases since the surge began last fall.

Thanks to recent trainings, Safe Passage Project, an advocacy group at New York Law School which represents unaccompanied minors in immigration court, is now working with approximately 200 pro bono attorneys.

Claire Thomas, staff attorney for Safe Passage, said in an email to Voices of NY that the number of unaccompanied children in the U.S. has increased substantially since the organization started to keep track of those figures more than two years ago. The organization is taking approximately 15 to 20 new children’s cases each month.

Cooper of CARECEN said, “If I could help everybody and never had to sleep and had infinite hours, I would take every single case. But I can’t take them all and still be a good attorney for them. I will miss stuff and not have enough time to dedicate to do their case properly.”

A list of providers offering free legal services was available to all after the meeting at CARECEN.

“There is an overlap here with very passionate, active advocacy groups,” Damas said. “You have the immigrant groups and then there’s children rights groups, it’s the perfect storm.”

The White House has asked Congress to approve a $3.7 billion emergency fund that would provide aid for unaccompanied children entering the U.S., expand border security, and hire teams of additional immigration judges. Almost $300 million would be allocated to “repatriate and reintegrate migrants to Central America.”

On July 24, the Obama administration announced it was considering screening thousands of minors and young adults in Honduras to establish refugee status or emergency humanitarian status in their home country to slow the rush of minors taking dangerous journeys to reach the United States. If the proposal passes and the plan proves successful, the program could then be extended to El Salvador and Guatemala.

Kricia took in her sister and nephew after they were sent to New York from Texas. They crossed the U.S.-Mexico border a few weeks ago and did not want their faces to be photographed. (Photo by Mo Krochmal for Voices of NY)

Kricia took in her sister and nephew after they were sent to New York from Texas. They crossed the U.S.-Mexico border a few weeks ago and did not want their faces to be photographed. (Photo by Mo Krochmal for Voices of NY)

According to the immigration laws, it is not sufficient to say that extreme poverty is a legitimate reason to stay in the U.S., as that is the case with immigrants from many countries around the world. However, many of the children from the Northern Triangle nations say they are menaced on a daily basis and are afraid of criminal gang violence. They are afraid they will be killed.

In the Hempstead meeting, a mother, 32, her 14-year-old son and her male cousin, 20, said they lived under constant fear and intimidation from gangs in El Salvador, unable to walk on the streets for fear of being assaulted.

The mother and son arrived in New York on a three-day, migrant-filled bus from Texas; the 20 year old was put on a plane. They were all welcomed by Kricia, the 32 year old’s sister, who arrived illegally four years ago, but now has legal status.

Kricia, who lives on Long Island, said, “It’s a necessity to come to this country.”

Nancy Ayala is a New York-based freelance writer and multimedia producer who covers U.S. Hispanic and Latin American news. Follow her on Twitter.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Claire Thomas Quoted in Voices of NY Article: "Central Americans Learn About the Law" | Safe Passage Project

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