There are no guarantees that any unaccompanied minors who makes it to U.S. soil will not be deported back to Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, according to Virginia Maynes, immigrant child welfare staff attorney at Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska.
Maynes said once an unaccompanied minor has been apprehended by U.S. border patrol agents, they are turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which cares for the minor until a sponsor can be found in the U.S.
If an unaccompanied minor has a parent in the U.S., that person is typically regarded as natural guardian for the child, she said. Whoever agrees to be a sponsor for the minor signs an agreement stipulating that the minor must attend school while in the U.S. Another mandate in the agreement is that the sponsor promises that the minor will appear for his or her removal proceeding before a U.S. immigration judge.
In the U.S., a criminal defendant is guaranteed the right to be represented by an attorney in court, Maynes said. If a defendant cannot afford to hire his own attorney, then an attorney will be appointed by the court.
However, an unaccompanied minor is not presumed to have the right to an attorney, even if the minor is a relatively young child and cannot speak any English, she said. But the issue of whether an unaccompanied minor should be represented by an attorney in an immigration proceeding is not being litigated in Washington state.
Unaccompanied minors from Central Nebraska cannot be granted refugee status because people are classified as being refugees before ever arriving in the United States, Maynes said. That is why Sudanese and Somali immigrants – who actually lived in refugee camps – are legally considered refugees.
She said the question for unaccompanied minors is whether they can be classified as seeking asylum, a designation given to immigrants after they arrive in the U.S. Although in different categories, refugees and asylees must meet at least one of the same criteria to receive those legal designations under U.S. immigration law.
Both refugees and asylees must have a "well-founded fear of persecution" because of their political opinions, religion, nationality, race or for being a member of a protected social group, Maynes said. She said some immigration lawyers are arguing that unaccompanied minors should be part of a protected social group because as children, they are vulnerable to the predations of Central American gangs.
When border agents apprehend unaccompanied minors, they create a notification for appearance in immigration court, Maynes said. However, that notification is not always immediately filed.
Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska has partnered with UM4GI to have monthly clinics at Trinity United Methodist Church. Maynes said an attorney for JFON-Nebraska will not automatically represent an immigrant during a removal proceeding. She said JFON-Nebraska will first talk to immigrants to determine whether a reasonable argument can be made on behalf of that person in an immigration court.
She said JFON-Nebraska must then determine if it has a capability of taking on that immigrant's case. The organization does not want to hurt the immigrant it agrees to represent – as well as the many immigrants it is already representing – by getting spread too thin to do an adequate legal representation for any of its clients.
The Rev. Theresa Mason of Trinity United Methodist Church said UM4GI is hosting monthly immigration clinics on the third Thursday of each month, with Sept. 18 the next scheduled clinic.
In an earlier story, The Independent had reported that people who want to make appointments must call the Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance Hotline (NILAH) at (855) 307-6730 between 9 and 11 a.m. or 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays; between 9 a.m. and noon or 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays; or from 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays to get an initial review of their situation.
After their information has been reviewed, the immigrant will be contacted to set up an appointment during a scheduled clinic.