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Migrant Nation

As border apprehensions fall, a serious 'minor' problem emerges

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"These are children with serious problems caught up in this, along with others who may be incompetent or mentally ill," Teran said. "We're representing one who's only seven years old right now." It's largely left up to the nonprofit world to determine whether kids qualify for legal status, such as asylum, or if they're able to get visas as a result of trafficking or being victims of crime, she says.

Virtually nowhere else in the U.S. law are kids deemed competent and able to represent themselves in open court. Yet in the immigration system, minors must respond to charges against them, detail what forms of relief they might apply for, testify under oath, and be judged on their credibility.

"I've represented hundreds, if not thousands, of people in immigration proceedings, and there are very few adults that I've encountered who could successfully navigate that complex system alone," said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of San Antonio-based RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services). Along with representing children, RAICES conducts legal screenings and know-your-rights presentations for kids like the those recently shuffled to Lackland.

Housing and shelters in town for unaccompanied minors picked up by Border Patrol, Ryan says, are similar to what kids placed in CPS custody experience. "But the difference is, with those children in CPS care, their parents are subject to an investigation and potential prosecution," Ryan said. "In the context of these unaccompanied minors, they're seen as defendants within the system."

Still, some like David Walding with the Bernardo Kohler Center, which advocates for immigrants in Texas, worry how well know-your-rights presentations stick with elementary school-age kids. "They're not entitled to representation, even as children … That's the serious, underlying problem." •

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