Privacy lawyer Sachi Jepson looked forward to working at an international law firm in Washington D.C. because of the firm’s commitment to pro bono work.

So when the non-government organization Kids in Need of Defense held an informational meeting at her office and told her about their work with unaccompanied children fleeing tragic situations in other countries, she signed up right away.

“I came to Hogan Lovells specifically wanting to do work that would keep me in tune with why I went to law school in the first place,” said Jepson. “This pro bono work involves helping people who don’t have legal resources.”

Kids in Need of Defense is an organization that hires lawyers to represent unaccompanied immigrant children in court. These lawyers have become increasingly important as the numbers of immigrant children entering the United States alone has spiked dramatically in recent years. According to a report released by the U.S. Border Patrol, the number of minors apprehended by American authorities while trying to cross the border each year tripled from about 8,000 in 2008 to close to 25,000  in 2012.

Advocates say young people who come to the United States without an adult are often teens, fleeing abuse, human trafficking and abandonment. If they are deported they are thrown back into these grim situations, but the current American immigration system is more likely to expel than protect them.

“These are children that haven’t had a childhood,” said Jepson. “These are children that oftentimes, from the time they were in elementary school were either providing for their families or being beat up by gangs; certainly not being protected by adults in a way that they should have been.”

The Journey

Most of these children enter the country by crossing the Mexican – U.S. border, but many of them are not Mexican citizens. They are often children from Central America, specifically from the countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Violence, such as gang attacks, is the most common reason children flee their home countries, but other push factors include extreme poverty, threats of human trafficking, and domestic abuse.

“Central America is just getting worse and worse and there is just no future for a lot of these kids,” said Michelle Brané, the Director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The journey to America is no easy feat. Many children ride on top of trains and once they reach northern Mexico they face dry deserts, rushing rivers, and malicious human traffickers. The 2009 Academy Award nominated documentary “Which Way Home,” follows a group of teenage boys as they train hop their way to the United States in search of hope and money to send home.

American border patrol agents usually turn apprehended children over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has specific services for unaccompanied children. These services include temporary housing during removal proceedings and court hearings.

However, not everyone is lucky enough to reach a shelter. Mexican children are often turned away at the border without an opportunity to make their case heard because the number of Mexican immigrants attempting to enter the country is so large

“We really worry about what happens to those kids who get turned right back,” said Brané. “One because when they get turned down the traffickers are waiting for them right there and two because they’re just being sent back to the same conditions that brought them here without any sort of best interest determination or any sort of return process that might help prevent this removal.”

Human rights advocates such as Brané are also concerned about the method used to screen children at the border. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are supposed to process children as potential trafficking victims. But some people are concerned that agents are not taking the time to screen these children properly.

The Senate is considering comprehensive immigration reform bill that would give more training to government officers who work in border facilities to improve the process of identifying children who are victims of crime and human trafficking. These officers would be instructed to take more time to interview children about their status to determine if they will be safe from traffickers if sent home.

Gaining A Special Status

Immigrant children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned, are eligible for a special type of relief called Special Immigrant Juvenile status. Lawyers often try to make a case for this type of relief for their unaccompanied minor clients because it can be the first step toward citizenship.

An unaccompanied minor’s case first goes to family court where a judge determines if the child fits the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status criteria. If the necessary state law criteria are met, the judge then issues a predicate order, which sends the case to an immigration court where it can be used as the basis for a visa application to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

At this time, the United States does not provide legal representation for undocumented immigrant children. Some children may have a family member who can pay for a lawyer, but those who don’t must depend on advocacy organizations such as Kids in Need of Defense to hire pro bono lawyers for them.

Veronica Knapp worked on two cases of unaccompanied minors with Jepson.

“Many unaccompanied children do not speak English, cannot afford an attorney, and are not familiar with the complex legal requirements of the immigration system,” said Knapp, who is a regulatory lawyer. “It’s a really good feeling to be able to help someone who is literally without other options.”

The process can sometimes be a race against time because state family courts typically lose jurisdiction over children once they turn 18. Jepson and Knapp have worked on the cases of three 17-year-old minors who fled Central American countries. One of those clients now has permanent residency and can apply for citizenship.

After agreeing to take pro bono cases, the lawyers found themselves spending hours developing relationships with their clients in order to gain their trust and learn their stories.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform and Unaccompanied Children

The senators, who drafted the new comprehensive immigration reform bill, are trying to address the complex issue of unaccompanied children in the United States through provisions added to the bill.

In addition to more training for screening children, the bill also calls for changes to legal representation practices. The bill requires judges to assign lawyers to children at the government’s expense, ensuring that they would not have to appear in court alone.

Though the fate of the bill is yet to be determined, unaccompanied minor advocates are hopeful that the discussions around it will bring light to the issue at hand.

“There is nothing inevitable about the way the immigration court is set up and it can be very confusing,” said Jepson. “I think that’s why we went to school to become lawyers, the idea of being able to go and get a skill set that can immeasurably simplify things for someone who can really use that.”