Fort Worth

July 21, 2014

Catholic Charities calls for volunteer attorneys to help young migrants

Children from Central America who are stopped at the U.S. border are entitled to deportation hearings but will need legal assistance, Catholic Charities officials say.

The Roman Catholic leaders of North Texas called a joint news conference Monday to call for volunteers to assist with the humanitarian problem of thousands of Spanish-speaking children arriving at the U.S. southern border hungry, separated from their families and needing clothing and shelter.

For faith communities, said Bishop Kevin Farrell of the Diocese of Dallas, the issue is not about immigration politics but about helping people in need.

“We are the No. 1 country in the world when it comes to helping people,” he said.

But what, a reporter wanted to know, was the bishops’ reaction to Gov. Rick Perry’s deploying National Guard troops?

“I’m sure the governor has his reasons to send 1,000 troops to the border area,” Farrell said. “It doesn’t resolve the problem at the moment.”

Reform of U.S. immigration policy and addressing the root cause of the exodus of children from their Central American homes will be more effective, he said.

“As a church, we are concerned for the children,” Farrell said. “This is a humanitarian crisis that will judge the character or morality of our nation.”

Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth said Perry should clearly define the role of the National Guard so that children are not harmed.

Child migrants mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are arriving in the United States in record numbers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that 57,525 youngsters were apprehended between Oct. 1, 2013, through June 30. That figure is up 106 percent from the last fiscal year when border authorities apprehended 27,884 youngsters.

Federal authorities have predicted the number of young people apprehended could reach between 60,000 to 90,000 this year and are trying to figure out where to house the youngsters as their cases are processed.

Catholic leaders and immigration advocates stressed Monday that young migrants from Central America will have to go through deportation hearings in federal immigration courts. (Mexican youngsters are deported more quickly.) Those who can demonstrate they are escaping abuse, neglect or abandonment could qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Others might try to qualify for asylum or seek to gain status through family reunification, the advocates said.

Catholic Charities of Dallas and the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association are trying to recruit bilingual attorneys to volunteer to represent pro bono the minors whose cases end up in immigration court. About 160 have already volunteered.

“We are seeing more and more volunteers,” said Rocio Cristina Garcia, a member of the bar association. “Every day the number is growing.”

There is no state or federal aid to help pay for immigrant legal help, said Vanna Slaughter, director of immigration and legal services for Catholic Charities.

The agency also works with parents, family members or foster families with whom unaccompanied minors stay while making their immigration claims, Slaughter said. The group has been providing legal orientation for them. The custodians are reminded that they must make sure the children show up for immigration proceedings.

The agency works with the U.S. Department of Justice under the Legal Orientation Program for Custodians (LOPC). During this fiscal year, 392 children and their custodians have been assisted through the program, Slaughter said. In 30 percent to 40 percent of the cases, they are involved with youngsters receiving special juvenile immigrant status.

The agency is also preparing legal clinics for migrant youth wishing to claim they were persecuted by gangs that tried to force them into criminal activity. In these cases, children would get legal guidance but represent themselves.

Making that type of asylum case won’t be easy.

“Right now, it is very, very difficult,” she said. “Almost impossible.”

Catholic Charities of Dallas and Fort Worth were working with unaccompanied minors from Central America before the surge at the border made recent headlines. The agencies noticed about four years ago that the number of unaccompanied children arriving in North Texas to be reunited with family members was increasing. Catholic Charities Fort Worth has cared for about 200 of such children at a shelter since June 2013.

“Why are we doing this?” Farrell asked. “This is what America is all about. This is what America does.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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