Unaccompanied kids fleeing from violence need more help in New Jersey

Last week at the Texas border Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said, “The message has to be that our border is not open to illegal immigration and we are sending people back … You will be sent back.” In contrast, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees produced a report Children on the Run that included a study “which concluded than 58% of the 404 fleeing children interviewed at the Mexican border were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” While the U. S. is urging countries to provide refuge for Syrians fleeing violence, it is taking a hypocritical and contrary position within its own borders. Homeland Security refers to these people as aliens and illegal immigrants, and on Wednesday, President Obama said, it was likely that most would be sent back to their countries.

However, Rep. Rush Holt has a different take on the matter. Last week while meeting with NJ immigration advocates including First Friends of NY/NJ, he stated, “They are refugees. That’s how we can start, by using the appropriate language.”

Below are suggestions as to how we can further help these frightened, endangered refugees arriving in New Jersey.  

To assist these refugees the State should provide emergency grants to non-profit advocacy/services groups. For example, before these refugees can even leave the detention centers and arrive in New Jersey, the person who seeks to be their sponsor must first review and complete a “Family Reunification Packet” of eight items including an application, digital finger print instructions for the sponsor, care agreement, sponsor handbook, and more. The packet would be too complicated for most of us but even more so for a typical immigrant parent, relative or friend who seeks to sponsor a child.

Rosa Santana of First Friends explained one of her complex cases of a local person who is the father of one child and the uncle of another (one 14 and the other 16 years old) who are still in Texas detention. The father/uncle needs help in filling in the forms and will soon be taken Catholic Charities in Newark for finger-printing. Once they complete the process and mail a packet to the federal Office of Administration for Children and Families, they await a case determination. This is just one example of how much assistance immigrants need in our bureaucratic system and why these agencies deserve more funding.    

Our State government should also issue emergency grants for specialized training and compensation for immigration lawyers. After being detained in sometimes inhumane, overcrowded facilities near the border for weeks these kids arrive in New Jersey where they must deal with the Newark Federal Immigration Court and its complicated procedures in order to seek asylum. They have no public defender, they don’t speak English, they are too young to understand the legal process and their parent or guardian is equally ill-prepared to navigate the system.

There are some non-profit agencies in NJ which offer legal assistance, a few at no cost and most at a reduced rate, but there are too few knowledgeable lawyers involved. To qualify for asylum a child must prove he or she has been persecuted or risks further threats in the future over race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. Such proof is hard to obtain from the country of origin where the police are often in cahoots with traffickers, gang leaders, and heavy-handed military. The burden of proof is on the kids and their family to convince a judge to grant asylum. These agencies desperately need additional funding in order to prevent qualified refugees from being deported back to frightening, life-threatening conditions.

So far it appears that none of these kids in New Jersey are being held in detention. However, one who was sent mistakenly to our state and scheduled to be detained here was rescued by First Friends, given a place to sleep for a few nights, and helped to return to Texas where a relative was awaiting him.

New Jerseyans by and large have been supportive of immigration in our state. According to Kids Count Data Center’s most recent 2012 census New Jersey has 645,000 Children In Immigrant Families Who Are U.S. Citizens and 255,000 Children In Immigrant Families In Which Resident Parents Are Not U.S. Citizens. Governor Christie signed the Dream Act which granted in-state tuition rates to children who are undocumented. We have not seen here the type of of ugly protest which took place in Murrieta, California, and which may be repeated again today in Arizona.

Of course as NJ Spotlight points out in an excellent article not all are as supportive. Gayle Kesselman, cochairwoman of New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control NJCIC) said, “the administration was unconcerned with the impact that immigration had on American workers. We have a federal government that is looking to provide jobs and legal services for illegal immigrant children and teenagers.” NJCIC‘s clarion call is “Stop the Invasion.”  

There are things our NJ government can do to help these refugees. In the long term comprehensive national immigration reform is the most important need. In the meantime people can donate to non-profit immigration groups included on this updated local legal services provider list.

See also the Blue Jersey diary Unaccompanied kids fleeing violence to the U.S.: A morning in NJ’s immigration Court.  

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