The Unaccompanied Children Program coordinates a national effort to increase pro bono legal representation for immigrant children in removal (deportation) proceedings without a parent or legal guardian. These children may be fleeing poverty, war, or other dangerous circumstances on their own, or they may have lost contact with an adult along the way. They are detained in federal custody in shelters or detention centers contracted by the Division of Children’s Services (DCS, formerly DUCS), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
Currently, Vera staff oversee programs at 26 nonprofit agencies that provide assistance to children throughout the country. At each site, children receive:
- Know Your Rights Orientations. Providers give group or individual presentations to newly arrived children at detention facilities prior to each child’s first court appearance, which teach the children about their rights while in detention and the immigration court process
- Individual Screenings. Providers meet individually with all unaccompanied children to identify their legal needs and provide additional education about their rights and immigration law
- Pro Bono Assistance, Referrals and Representation. Providers recruit, train, and mentor pro bono attorneys, and match children with pro bono representation whenever possible.
- Coordinated Services. Providers communicate with detention facility caseworkers, ORR staff, child welfare practitioners, and immigration authorities about unaccompanied children’s needs and issues
In addition, children in the Chicago, South Texas, Washington, DC, and New York areas also have access to the appointment of a child advocate who can assess, and make recommendations regarding, the best interests of the child.
Why We Need This Program
Each year, thousands of children fleeing war and poverty enter the United States unaccompanied by an adult or separated from their parents or legal guardians. Although many of them meet conditions that would allow them to remain in the country legally, going through immigration proceedings without legal help is daunting. The Homeland Security Act requires the Office of Refugee Resettlement to ensure that qualified and independent legal counsel is appointed for unaccompanied children in its custody in a timely manner. To meet this requirement, ORR contracted with the Vera Institute in 2005, and again in 2009, to manage a national network of pro bono legal service providers, which is developing and testing ways to meet the legal needs of unaccompanied children.
For more information about this program, contact Anne Marie Mulcahy.