Local attorney explains process of representing unaccompanied immigrant minors
EL PASO, Texas —
The children who are being detained at the Tornillo port of entry could soon need legal representation. Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services has been representing unaccompanied children for more than a decade.
“We provide legal representation and legal education to immigrants,” Melissa Lopez said.
Lopez is an immigration attorney and the executive director of Diocesen Migrant & Refugee Services.
For the last 10 years they’ve had a contract to represent unaccompanied minors in El Paso who have crossed the border.
“If we have children that are in any of the local facilities, including Tornillo, that go to court then we would represent them in court,” Lopez said.
From October 2016 to June 2017, 2,054 unaccompanied children crossed the border in the El Paso sector. That number increased by 16 percent (2,384) during the same time from 2017 to 2018.
Lopez said one of the biggest challenges in representing kids is building the case.
“There are times that a child doesn’t understand the nuances of their case or don’t understand why perhaps, if they’re seeking asylum, why they may have fled,” Lopez said. “Because it’s something that their parents were aware of, or could articulate, but they necessarily can’t.”
Sometimes a psychologist has to be brought in, but Lopez said they're not readily available in immigration proceedings.
“A lot of the children, especially from Central America come to the U.S. fleeing gang violence. The gangs are trying to recruit them, sometimes they have had family members that have been killed,” Lopez said.
Unlike family court, where decisions are made in the best interest of the child, attorneys in immigration cases have to do what the child wants.
“The environment that they live in, in terms of the violence and gangs in Central America we still have to do what the child wants, as opposed to injecting our own judgement,” Lopez said.
In some cases immigration attorneys will try to get legal status for these kids to stay in the U.S. That can be done through a process in family court that will then have to be approved by an immigration judge.