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Immigrant Children Face A Lengthy Legal Process

Jaime Treviño is a staff attorney for Catholic Charities of Dallas. He oversees a legal orientation program for children who've been detained at the border. He explains to them and their guardian what they can expect in court."

The Obama administration announced Monday that most of the immigrant children who’ve crossed the border will be sent back to their home countries, and it plans to ask Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds. KERA sat down with a local immigration attorney to see how the kids make their way through the legal system.

When children arrive in the U.S. illegally, they’re held in a detention center and moved to a temporary shelter within 72 hours. Some have been staying longer because of the growing number of children being detained. Once at the shelter, they get a health screening and vaccinations -- and they’re supposed to be connected with a family member or other guardian who’s in the U.S. But the kids aren’t just handed over. The relative has to get a background check and sign a contract.

“The contract basically is going to say that you’re going to be taking care of the child, you’re going to make sure that he attends school, that he doesn’t drive, he doesn’t work or anything like that,” says Jaime Treviño, a staff attorney at Catholic Charities of Dallas.

He says the relative or guardian assigned to temporarily house the child also has to agree to take the kid to court hearings. Kids stay in shelters a few days to a few weeks. After moving in with the relative, a child can wait three to six months for a preliminary hearing.

“Unfortunately, in immigration court, you’re not entitled to an attorney like in the criminal system. So, unfortunately, a lot of times either they have a pro bono representation or they hire an attorney, or maybe they’re able to get a nonprofit to assist them that can provide legal assistance,” Treviño says.

But many children do not have an attorney, Treviño says. When that happens, it’s up to the guardian to help answer some of the judge’s questions. Since January, about 1,000 children have been released to relatives in this area. Treviño has seen kids from a few months old to just shy of 18. Most are from Central America.

“Some of the cases that I’ve seen, it’s a bit sad because maybe the child can apply for a particular type of remedy, but maybe they don’t have the resources or know-how to do that,” Treviño says. “That’s where my role fits in.”

Treviño is the person who explains to kids and their families what to expect in court and what options they have. He can refer them to a pro bono attorney, which has been especially tough in the last few months, with so many children arriving. Catholic Charities recently held training for attorneys interested in doing pro bono work for immigrant children. About 60 attended.

Trevino says there are several reasons why children are coming to the U.S.

“They’re leaving their country because there’s violence in their country, there’s a lot of problems with gangs, economic stability, separation from their family,” Treviño says. “Those are the main themes.”

He says young girls are being targeted and raped. Boys are coerced into joining gangs. Asylum can be an option if a child fears persecution because of race, religion or politics. But fear of violence or gangs isn’t enough.

“I would suspect though the majority of the children don’t qualify for a particular immigration benefit,” Treviño says. “I would say a very slim amount of children are able to apply.”

There are other options. A family member who’s here legally can petition for the child to stay, or the child could apply for a special visa. But those aren’t easily handed out either.

Any way you look at it, Treviño says, many kids are left waiting for months or years to find out if they get to stay or be sent home.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.