Law School professors Maria Woltjen and Elizabeth Frankel spoke to students about unaccompanied immigrant children in the United States and the shortcomings of current child immigration policies on Tuesday. Woltjen and Frankel direct the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, an independent nonprofit based at the Law School, which trains law students and volunteers to represent immigrant children in courtroom proceedings.
Children come to the United States to escape conditions of poverty and deprivation, to find their parents, or to flee gang recruitment, armed conflict, child abuse, and prosecution, the speakers said.
“One of the hardest things about working with these kids is gaining their trust and figuring out what their stories are—these kids are coached heavily to tell a certain story by their traffickers and family members, so we spend a lot of time working with them and really figuring out why they came to the United States,” Frankel said.
Frankel and Woltjen contend that there is no requirement under the Immigration Nationality Act mandating judges to consider the best interests of the children when deciding whether to deport them. Furthermore, the children have to prove they have a right to remain in the United States but have no right to an attorney and often have to represent themselves.
“These kids—they had a plan. They thought they were going to reach Mom or Dad or Uncle. They want to work, pay mortgage for the home, and now they are getting threats and are stuck in this place where they don’t know what is going to happen, and they are really scared and confused,” Frankel said.
In 2012, 15,000 children were apprehended by the federal government and placed in immigration detention, Frankel said, and now face deportation proceedings. In years past, the number was closer to 8,000 annually. Projections estimate that 24,000 children will be taken into custody this year.
“We have heard many different possible reasons for this [increase]—violence in their countries, two consecutive droughts in Guatemala, poverty, the economy—but we really don’t know,” Frankel said.
A little over a decade ago, there was one detainment facility in Chicago with 70 children. There are now six detention centers throughout the Chicagoland area that house over 400 kids, the speakers said. The Center aims to provide assistance for these children but has to contend with constraints in its resources in the face of growing demand for its services.
“When Maria started, we used to always automatically serve any young child under the age of 15. Now if we served every child under the age of 15, I don’t think we would ever be able to sleep. There would be so many kids,” Frankel said.
The event was hosted by the UChicago chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.