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Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow Teams With Fragomen Fellow to Give a New Life to a Child Refugee

  • 10/7/2015
  • City Bar Justice Center

“He was GRANTED,” exclaimed Danny Alicea and Caitlin Miner Le-Grand, our Fragomen and Immigration Justice Corps Fellows at the City Bar Justice Center.  They had just returned from picking up the decision at the asylum office with their client, a young man named “Michael.”

At age 17, Michael had fled Honduras during the summer of 2014. His claim for asylum centered on the extensive child abuse and forced labor inflicted upon him by his father, as well as subsequent threats to his life by gang members who sought to recruit him into their criminal enterprise.  When Michael refused, they threatened to hurt him if he did not join them.  After they threatened him at gunpoint, chased him down on motorcycle and shot at him, Michael realized he had no choice but to flee Honduras. 

Michael’s childhood was not a happy one.  Abandoned by his mother as a toddler, Michael’s father abused him relentlessly his whole life.  He hit him with his fists, sticks, belts and ropes.  Starting at age 7, his father forced him to labor on a farm while keeping all the wages Michael earned.  Doing work far beyond his capabilities at that age, Michael suffered various serious injuries, including a machete wound to his leg while clearing brush and a broken arm that never fully healed.  As he grew older, his father’s abuse worsened.  While drunk on several occasions, Michael’s father pointed a gun at him; on one occasion, he shot at Michael.           

When Michael fled in August 2014, he joined thousands of other children, women, and families fleeing violence and insecurity from primarily El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.  After making the dangerous journey alone to the U.S., Michael, like so many other children, immediately found himself navigating another odyssey by himself: removal proceedings in U.S. immigration courts. 

Rather than a humanitarian response to the Central American refugee crisis, the Obama Administration has pursued a multi-prong strategy of ramped up border enforcement and detention, and expedited immigration hearings for recently-arrived unaccompanied children.  These children, many of whom have suffered trauma, detention and dislocation, have little time to get oriented and locate counsel before appearing in court in what have been dubbed as “surge” or “rocket dockets.”  This is particularly problematic given that unrepresented children are unlikely to prevail in immigration court, even when they have bona fide claims for protection.  Indeed, Syracuse University’s recent Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) study found that almost 75% of represented children prevail in immigration court, as compared to only 15% of unrepresented children.  Fortunately, Michael was among the 32% of unaccompanied children from Central America who manage to locate legal representation.      

After conducting a telephonic and in-person intake, the Refugee Assistance Program at the City Bar Justice Center quickly accepted Michael into our program and staffed his case to our fellows, Caitlin and Danny.  Caitlin joined the Justice Center in 2014, as part of the inaugural class of the Immigrant Justice Corps, the first fellowship program in the country dedicated to providing immigrants with high-quality legal services.  Danny was also in the first year of his Fragomen Fellowship, which was established by the Fragomen law firm in 2007 to enhance the pro bono immigration services provided by the Justice Center. 

During the course of their representation, Caitlin and Danny weighed various forms of relief.  For example, they initially considered pursuing Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), an immigration classification available to certain undocumented immigrants under the age of 21 who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents, but ultimately rejected it because the prospect of a home visit by ACS made undocumented members of Michael’s household uneasy.  While his asylum application was pending, they also considered pursuing a U-visa, which protects immigrant victims of crimes, after Michael was brutally attacked by a neighbor.

Ultimately, Caitlin and Danny moved forward with Michael’s asylum claim.  They prepared a strong written submission, which included, among other things, a forensic evaluation corroborating Michael’s severe arm injuries.  They also spent tremendous time preparing Michael for his asylum office interview.  This was no small undertaking, as Michael struggled to express himself and occasionally displayed symptoms of detachment and denial.  Still quite young, this was how Michael coped with his past trauma and current stressors, which included housing instability, pressure to support himself and contribute financially to his household, and struggling to pursue his education in a public school system unprepared to cope with an influx of recently arrived Central American students.  Caitlin and Danny’s efforts were well spent, as Michael was able to compellingly articulate why he fled and his fear of returning to Honduras during a grueling three-hour asylum office interview.  Michael was granted asylum on September 10, 2015.

Even as we celebrate, we at the City Bar Justice Center know that we cannot rest upon this victory for Michael because in the meantime, thousands of other children must stand up, by themselves, in immigration court and articulate why they are entitled to protection and to remain in the United States.  Until children in immigration proceedings have a right to counsel, the Bar and pro bono attorneys must continue to do their utmost to fill the breach and provide legal representation to immigrants who so desperately need, but cannot afford legal counsel.

  • Children's Rights
  • Immigration