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U.S. NEW YORK The Next Step for Separated Families: Teaching Migrant Children Their Legal Rights

Advocates explain the situation to separated immigrant children, some of whom are pre-verbal or in preschool


By Melanie Grayce West in New York City andArian Campo-Flores in El Paso, TexasJuly 1, 2018 7:00 a.m. ET WALL STREET JOURNAL

Two women accompany children to the Cayuga Centers in New York on June 21. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said hundreds of migrant children are being cared for in the facility. PHOTO: RICHARD DREW/ASSOCIATED PRESS

At the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, advocates are faced with explaining legal rights to hundreds of children who have been separated from the adults they were traveling with when they illegally entered the U.S.

The group is providing legal services for about 350 children, most of whom are 10 years old or younger and can’t fully comprehend the legal choices in the group’s “Know Your Rights” training. The children aren’t, of course, expected to make decisions for themselves but advocates want them to understand the situation they are in.

So the legal advocates use what they can to try to explain the situation in an age-appropriate way to children—some of whom are preschoolers, illiterate and pre-verbal.

“We engage interactive learning methods, including the use of visual aids, drawing, coloring, figurines, mapping, question and answer, participatory enactment of court,” said Mario Russell, the director of Catholic Charities’ Immigrant and Refugee Services. “We also use games and basic interactive play as a way to organize and channel the information.”

Children are, in most cases, relying on sporadic, brief communication with parents or relatives for guidance on what will happen next, Mr. Russell said. In some cases, older children have decided to pursue an asylum claim in the U.S. without their parents. Others will reunite with a parent in a home country. Most, however, are waiting to see what a parent does.

“Our work, when we go through that legal analysis, particularly for the younger kids, is really more about reunification, expediting it, ensuring it,” Mr. Russell said. “But it’s a complicated logistical process that is ultimately controlled by the federal government.”

The process has been slow because the children are under the care of the Health and Human Services Department and the parents are being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A federal judge recently ordered the Trump administration to temporarily stop separating migrant families and reunite all children with their parents. The nationwide preliminary injunction requires the federal government to reunite all children within 30 days and those younger than 5 years old within two weeks.

The more than 2,000 children who have been separated from their parents under Trump’s zero-tolerance policy are now in the care of foster agencies, religious groups and other social-service organizations that have contracts with HHS.

Catholic Charities in Fort Worth, Texas, has housed 28 children since the zero-tolerance policy was put in place, 16 of whom have been united with parents, relatives or family friends, Chief Executive Heather Reynolds said. The organization has striven to figure out what is in the best interest of each one. Staffers try to locate a child’s parents or relatives to make such decisions. If that isn’t possible, they typically place a child in a foster home.

Throughout the process, they try to help the children make sense of what they are experiencing. As part of their classroom instruction, the children study geography and map the journey they have been on, to better understand how they arrived here.

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Staffers try to explain each step in the process. If an aunt is undergoing vetting to become a sponsor, they might explain that they are looking into whether she has room in her house.

Of the total group in New York City, Mr. Russell said, few children have been presented in court because the court dockets are clogged. Roughly a dozen who have been to court have reunified with a parent “because they have chosen to go back to a home country,” he said.

In few instances, a child—usually a teenager—is making a separate claim for asylum and wants to stay in the U.S. regardless of what a parent chooses, he said.


Advocates and attorneys say their adult clients in detention or federal custody wrestle with whether to pursue their asylum claim—which could result in a long stay in federal custody and an indefinite separation from a child—or opt for deportation and the possibility of an immediate reunification with a child in the home country.

Angélica González-García, a Guatemalan immigrant who was separated from her 8-year-old daughter at the border in May, was released from detention in Colorado two weeks ago and is staying with friends in Framingham, Mass. She is trying to reunite with her daughter, who is at a shelter in Harlingen, Texas.

She completed a 36-page packet to earn qualification as a sponsor. She had to confirm her identity and undergo background checks. And she must travel to New Jersey to provide fingerprints.

But Ms. González-García, 31, said she was told by government officials that the earliest she could get fingerprinted was July 31. After she secured legal representation, attorney Susan Church spoke to officials and a local congresswoman and got the date moved up to July 3. If mother and daughter are reunited, Ms. Church said she hopes to combine their asylum claims into a single case.

Ms. González-García has spoken five times to her daughter since being separated and worries about her struggles at the shelter. The girl reported being struck by another child and has had conjunctivitis, a cough and fever. She spent her eighth birthday there.

“I’m desperate,” said Ms. González-García, whose lawyers—including Ms. Church and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts—filed a lawsuit this week to reunite her with her daughter. “She hasn’t done anything. Why is she being punished?”


Melanie Grayce West at melanie.west@wsj.com and Arian Campo-Flores at arian.campo-flores@wsj.com

Appeared in the July 2, 2018, print edition as 'Teaching Rights to Migrant Children.'