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Arizona nonprofit provides free legal aid to unaccompanied minors

PHOENIX — Children as young as just a few months old and up to 17 years old continue to be placed in shelters across Arizona and across the country.

What many people believe will lead to their release and permanent residency in the U.S. may be far from the truth.

Currently, upwards of 1,000 minors who crossed the border into the country without a parent or guardian are housed in a facility in Nogales, Ariz. They were apprehended by immigration officials and will be transferred to shelters. The transfer is part of a system in place by the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

The purpose of the ORR shelters, according to the agency’s website, is to make decisions in the best interest of the unaccompanied child. During a child’s stay at the shelter, a sponsor, which can be another relative or guardian living in the U.S., is identified pending the outcome of their immigration process. It’s during this process that care can get even more challenging for the minors.

“The shelters that are in Arizona, we go into those shelters and we provide ‘know your rights’ presentations, classes and legal screenings for the kids,” said Gladis Molina, managing attorney at the Children’s Program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP).

Since immigrants in removal proceedings are not entitled to an attorney, it’s up to organizations like FIRRP to navigate the legal process.

“We find out if they have a case to fight — because of abuse, abandonment or neglect, or (if they are) victims of trafficking or trauma or fear to return to their country,” Molina said, “Se then pursue a legal avenue.”

When children do not have a way to legalize their status, FIRRP represents them to request voluntary departure or removal to their native country.

In 2013, FIRRP served more than 3,000 unaccompanied minors, Molina said.

“We were only able to help 60 children have an access to legal status in the country,” she said.

The criteria for unaccompanied children to gain legal status vary and, as Molina explained, is very strict.

“These are kids that we call special immigrant juveniles. They have a history of abuse, abandonment or neglect by their parents,” she said.

At least 50 of the 60 successful cases handled by FIRRP in 2013 were special immigrant juveniles, Molina said.

Molina said she finds a big disconnect between the perceptions of a lot of people who think that unaccompanied minors crossing the border have a legal stance to remain in this country lawfully.

“They don’t have an appreciation of the legal process that they go through,” she said.

Providing legal representation to these children would go a long way to protect their future, she explained.

“It is a complex system to navigate, even for lawyers,” she said.

For children, it is a daunting task, she added.

FIRRP is the only organization that provides free legal services to the more than 500 unaccompanied immigrant children detained in Arizona on any given day. The organization’s website explains the cost to represent each child is as much as $500 in pursuing the Special Immigrant Juvenile visa, for example. Donations to the organization contribute to those types of cases as well as to other legal costs, services and support.

As the crisis of migrant children crossing the border without parents has intensified, pressure mounts against the centers, like Nogales, that temporarily house the kids until they are transferred to shelters. A growing number of Arizona politicians are pressuring the Obama administration to take action on the crisis. Claims of abuse against the unaccompanied children also have arisen.

In the meantime, organizations like FIRRP continue to provide support to the children by providing legal aid. FIRRP encourages fellow immigration lawyers to take cases pro bono. It also encourages the public to make donations to its program and to volunteer for other nonprofits that are directly helping the immigrants, such as the Restoration Project and the Casa Mariposa in Phoenix