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Legal Organizations, Communities Rally To Help Minors Navigate U.S. Immigration

Jonathan Ryan
Poster designed for young children to learn about the U.S. immigration courts.

As the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border into Texas continues to increase, local agencies have been stepping in to help with the care for the children.

A legal immigration assistance center has re-focused its mission to help during the crisis, and has begun serving children at Lackland and across South Texas. 

At the San Antonio headquarters of the nonprofit organization RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), six children who seem younger than their 8-11 years sit in large chairs at a very grown-up conference table. They’re fidgety, but trying to be attentive, and looking at the school-sized poster Hannah Eash shows them with pictures and descriptions of their legal rights now that they’re in the U.S.

“These children that we have here this morning are from El Salvador, Honduras, and we have two from Belize,” Eash said.

It’s hard to tell if the kids understand the information: phone numbers to immigration, instructions to always tell the court if their address changes.

“The 'know your rights' presentation does vary some, depending on if we’re talking to a group this age or if we’re talking to a group of 15-17 year olds, obviously. It’s a little bit less detailed," Eash said. "But I think that we try and sort of give it in a child-friendly way."

“We usually try to provide the first 'know your rights' presentation between three and 10 days of the child’s arrival to the program,” said RAICES Executive Director Jonathan Ryan.

These days, Ryan said RAICES has given up its usual mission of helping all immigration applicants – serving adults only in emergency cases -- to make room for the nonprofit’s attorneys to assist the 800 children in their system.

“That’s a population that turns over every 30-45 days,” Ryan said.

Credit Jonathan Ryan / RAICES

Ryan said the numbers of unaccompanied minors sneaking into the U.S. have actually been steadily increasing over several years, and communities have been stepping up in a variety of ways.  

“And this predates the arrival to Lackland or the other military bases," Ryan said. "These are group homes to foster care to converted retirement communities, converted hospitals, that are all used to provide emergency housing to these children. At these locations they receive services such as medical, mental health, and counseling."

Government officials now say 90,000 Central American children will escape to the U.S. this year.

The House Appropriations Committee Wednesday approved an additional $78 million for fiscal 2015. Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-San Antonio, said the money is earmarked for transportation:

“When they’re caught down there at the border, the kids are being sent by plane to different parts of the country; whether it’s California, Oklahoma, whether it’s Lackland/San Antonio whether it’s Virginia. And they’re being flown," Cuellar said. "So monies are being used for flights, for trains, for buses. And that’s what this money’s for."

Ryan said the ones that make it to the RAICES coverage area in Texas will continue to get services from his organization. But for all of the kids it has been a tough journey.

“Normally the children are leaving their villages alone or in small groups," Ryan said. "And then as they travel along the travel routes, gather together with more children. Many of them travel through Central America and Mexico while riding on top of trains and they gather together in that environment. And it’s a perilous journey. We hear stories of children who have witnessed – who’ve had traveling partners fall off the trains.

“You’re sitting next to someone for several days as the train rolls along. And then you go under a bridge, and on the other side of the bridge, the person that was sitting next to you is not sitting next to you anymore," Ryan said.

“The fact is that when we started this work a few years ago, every once in awhile we would encounter a child who was kidnapped or trafficked or assaulted or held for ransom en route by a criminal gang or a cartel or the Zetas,” Ryan said. “Once in awhile. The reality now is that once in awhile we see a kid who didn’t go through that.” 

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.