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Monday, July 14, 2008

Protecting the Rights of Children, Youth, and Families Seeking Asylum

An interview with HealthRight partner, The Florence Project

The staff of The Florence Project

Lindsay Marshall is the Executive Director of The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which provides free legal services to people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Arizona.  HealthRight’ Internationals (formerly Doctors of the World-USA) Human Rights Clinic (HRC) partners with The Florence Project by sending HRC volunteers to examine asylum applicants, documenting and testifying to signs of torture or other abuse.  Ms. Marshall spoke with HealthRight about the problem of children and families being held in US detention facilities, and about how the HRC helps The Florence Project fulfill its mission.

What happens when unaccompanied minors or families with small children are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)?

If a family with young children is taken into ICE custody they may be detained in one of two ICE contract detention centers designed for families.  Unaccompanied children are detained in private contract shelters, group homes, or long term foster care in the Phoenix area.  Unaccompanied children who can’t be reunified with family in the US will remain in custody while they fight their legal cases, which can take at least a year. 

What services does The Florence Project specifically provide for youth?

Our Children’s Project seeks to address the legal needs of all unaccompanied children in ICE custody in Arizona.  Since there is no public defender system for people in deportation proceedings, approximately 90% of ICE detainees go without legal counsel due to poverty.  We provide group “know your rights” presentations to all children, conduct interviews, provide pre-court counseling sessions, and represent nearly all children before the Phoenix immigration court.  The Children’s Project also screens children for abuse in Border Patrol custody.

What legal challenges do youth have when facing deportation?

Unaccompanied children face enormous legal challenges, primarily because of the difficulty they have in proving their legal case.  Gathering evidence from home countries and testifying on one’s own behalf as a child is extremely challenging, especially when the child has suffered abuse or persecution or is a native indigenous language speaker.  Given the current state of immigration law, even when a child is legally eligible for political asylum or a visa, these [evidence] can still be very difficult to obtain.

How difficult is it to win asylum, and what happens at the end of a case? 

Detainees in Arizona face a very low success rate of asylum applications – about 10%.  Unaccompanied children who do not win legal relief are generally deported on their own.  If a child does win asylum, the child is released from ICE custody.  However, they still face major obstacles relating to housing, education, and employment if they have no family or support network in the U.S.  The Florence Project tries to connect these children with social services and organizations that can help them but we have found there to be a shortage of resources designed to support unaccompanied immigrant children who win relief to stay in the US.

How does The Florence Project’s partnership with HealthRight’s Human Rights Clinic improve your services?

HRC provides an invaluable service.  Because our clients are detained, it is extremely difficult for them to prepare their legal case for asylum, and a client’s medical assessment and affidavit is often the sole piece of outside evidence demonstrating the persecution or torture he or she suffered.  We have found that being able to offer an HRC assessment and affidavit dramatically increases a client’s chance of winning asylum or Convention Against Torture relief in court.