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Unaccompanied children can seek help with new online resource

A group of young boys, all wearing face masks, sit on the floor of a facility in rows.
Dario Lopez-Mills
/
Associated Press
Young migrants wait to be tested for COVID-19 on March 30, 2021 at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley in Donna, TX.

The online tool connects young migrants to experts who can help them navigate the U.S. legal system and other resources.

Unaccompanied migrant children who find themselves in the U.S. face a myriad of challenges. They may face a language barrier and a lack of information about where to seek help. They may not know what their rights are or what the next steps are in immigration court.

A recently launched website aims to provide guidance to help young migrants navigate some of those issues. It’s called ImportaMi, which roughly translates to “matters to me” or “you matter to me.” The International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency, teamed up on the project with the Vera Institute for Justice, which advocates for reform in the criminal justice and immigration systems.

“It’s a two-way sort of communication system where they [migrant youth] can directly reach out to us,” said Hector Ruiz, legal program director for the IRC in Dallas. “One of our digital community liaisons will engage in conversation, you know, listen attentively to the needs that the child is expressing, and sort-of coming up with a response to those needs.”

Ruiz says that could mean looking for a low-cost or pro-bono attorney. Or helping migrant youth learn how to check on the status of a court hearing date, enroll in school, or find a therapist.

In fiscal year 2021, the Department of Homeland Security referred more than 122,000 unaccompanied children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“I think there’s a risk of a lot of these kids really falling through the cracks in terms of receiving some of these crucial services to ensure that they’re successful in their immigration processes,” Ruiz said.

“I think there’s a risk of a lot of these kids really falling through the cracks in terms of receiving some of these crucial services to ensure that they’re successful in their immigration processes."
Hector Ruiz, Legal Program Director, International Rescue Committee in Dallas

To use the site, users can connect via Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to submit questions. An IRC employee on the other end of that message – known as a digital liaison – will respond with information that’s helpful.

Ruiz said this site isn’t just for young people – sponsors of unaccompanied children can also use it.

IRC is getting the word out about the website by posting flyers in English and Spanish and other languages inside shelters.

So far, Ruiz said the online tool has helped IRC intervene in several child trafficking cases. The resettlement agency is also planning to create a section on the site specifically for Afghan children who’ve recently arrived in the U.S.

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Got a tip? Email Stella M. Chávez at schavez@kera.org. You can follow Stella on Twitter @stellamchavez.