Monday, February 22, 2016

Growing number of unaccompanied minors from Central America ending up in rural areas

Some of the more than 20,000 unaccompanied minors that last year fled violence and poverty in Central America to seek a brighter future in the U.S. have been placed in rural areas, Esther Honig reports for Harvest Public Media. Many unaccompanied minors end up in meatpacking towns, like Liberal, Kan. (Best Places map), where 60 percent of the 4,000 residents are Latino. "In the last two years, Ford and Seward counties in Kansas have received a total of 156 unaccompanied minors—more than any other region in the state. That's because they were placed with relatives that had previously moved to the area to work at National Beef."

Diego, a 17-year-old who left Guatemala to escape poverty and seek a better education and a better paying job in the U.S., told Honig, “In Guatemala, you know, it’s a poor place. There’s isn’t money for food, we don’t have a lot and I don’t have a dad.” Honig writes, "A smuggler was hired to bring Diego from Guatemala up through Mexico, but when he tried to cross the border into the U.S. he was apprehended by Border Patrol. Like the other unaccompanied minors caught illegally entering the country, Diego was briefly detained and then placed in federal custody. He spent about a month living at a shelter in Texas where the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed his identity and assessed his health. The Office of Refugee Resettlement brought Diego to a family member in Kansas, someone who would agree to take care of him until his mandatory court hearing with immigration. That’s how Diego wound up in Liberal—his half-brother has lived there for years."

"These young immigrants are designated 'unaccompanied alien children' by the federal government and can remain in the country until their immigration status hearing," Honig writes. "Some may choose to claim asylum, but many more will apply for Special Immigration Juvenile Status, available if a minor has been neglected, abused or abandoned by their parents. If granted, the status allows a young immigrant to remain in the U.S. Diego is still waiting for his court date; due to the large influx of these cases, many immigration courts in the U.S. are backed up. In the meantime, Diego is not allowed to work legally, but he can attend school. He is enrolled at the local high school, something he says his family couldn’t afford to do back in Guatemala."

"Unaccompanied minors like Diego are not provided with a lawyer when they appear in immigration court," Honig writes. "That means they may pay as much as $6,000 for representation. Research by the advocacy group Kids In Need Of Defense shows that the success rate for gaining legal status is five times higher when the minor has professional representation. In Liberal there are only five immigration lawyers and they offer limited pro bono work."

One problem is that unaccompanied minors are often placed with family members they barely know, or have never met at all, which leads to neglect, abuse and sometimes human trafficking, Honig writes. "A recent U.S. Senate investigation discovered that this is a national issue. Overwhelmed by a large and unexpected influx of unaccompanied minors, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement failed to conduct basic background checks on the adults entrusted with caring for these youth, according to an investigation by The Associated Press."

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