By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

Christians eager to help children fleeing gang violence in Central America are turning their attention from the southern border to the judicial system as thousands of new cases begin to work their way through the courts.

The Diocese of Arizona’s Migration and Border Ministry Program Group is urging Episcopalians to help cover legal costs for detained Central American children and parents, who have no rights to a public defender. The group is urging congregations to host speakers from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, the state’s only free legal service for unaccompanied children, and give money to the project as well.

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago is training volunteers to become advocates and accompany children to court hearings. And across the country, Episcopal Migration Ministries is recruiting attorneys who would like to be trained in nuances of immigration law and represent children in court pro bono.

“There’s no legal support for them that’s required by law, so you could quite easily have an 8-year-old standing in front of a judge all by himself,” said Aaron Rippenkroeger, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, an agency that provides services in five Texas cities.

Since October 1, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has apprehended more than 125,000 unaccompanied children and families on the southwestern border. Episcopal congregations in border communities have responded by helping feed and clothe families before they board buses for points north, where many are seeking asylum or other types of protection through immigration courts.

While some church-run refugee centers for families are still operating, their numbers are down significantly from June and July. Emergency facilities for unaccompanied children have closed at Nogales, Arizona, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and others are winding down. Standard shelters will handle arriving minors, who are placed with relatives in the United States, in foster care, or in orphanages while their cases progress.

Now activists are calling attention to the uphill challenges kids face if they do not have an attorney. They cite, for instance, a Syracuse University analysis of immigration court records. Last year, only 25 percent of children without an attorney were permitted to stay in the United States, versus 78 percent who had an attorney. In the 1,040 cases decided in the first six months of this year, children were twice as likely to stay in the United States if they had an attorney.

“It’s hard to say how many of the hearings have actually occurred for children who have arrived more recently,” said Jen Smyers, associate director for immigration and refugee policy at Church World Service, via email. “That’s why we are advocating for more resources to be provided to increase immigration judges and legal orientation programs for children and their family members.”

The shift toward courts places church volunteers in a new position of deciding whether to help immigrants stay in the U.S. To date, humanitarian relief ministries in cities like McAllen, Texas, and Tucson have drawn a politically diverse cohort of volunteers who wanted to help people in need, without necessarily championing their bids for protected status under the law.

As the cases advance, the push for advocacy is coming from those who believe it’s important to avoid a mass deportation of children who have arrived this summer from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

“I just worry about them being sent back and what they’re going to face when they’re sent back,” said the Rt. Rev. Kirk S. Smith, Bishop of Arizona. “They’re going to go back into an extremely violent situation. And they might be going back into situations of retaliation for having left.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a Massachusetts-based journalist, United Church of Christ minister, and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.

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