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Lawyers respond to help unaccompanied minors

More than 100 people were interested enough in the current immigration crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing the United States border to attend a Continuing Law Education (CLE) seminar on immigration and family law Sept. 4.

The day-long session, held at the Hispanic Apostolate of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, was sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association Mid-South chapter.

It was organized by Pro Bono and Juveniles (PB&J), an effort from the immigration and nationality law firm of Ware|Gasparian to match lawyers with undocumented children in need of free legal representation at hearings and in court.

“The main focus today is those cases that qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status,” said Martin Gutierrez, vice president of Community Services Ministry for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans (CCANO). Obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) allows children who are abused, neglected or abandoned by their caregivers in their hometown to stay in the United States.

The day included panels offering an overview of immigration law, including what it means to be undocumented and how to work with governmental agencies that handle immigration to help clients; how to obtain lawful permanent residence in the United States for minors using SIJS and other means such as asylum; and the best strategies to advocate for children.

Many come from Honduras
Homero Lopez of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge Immigration Legal Services said he encounters children after they’ve crossed the border and have been placed with sponsors – usually relatives or family friends in Louisiana – by  the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The children are trying to qualify for whatever legal relief they can to remain in the U.S.

Lopez was a panelist with Leah Spivey of Ware|Gasparian and Hiroko Kusuda of Loyola Law Clinic to discuss what happens after children cross the border, and the process and paperwork that attorneys face for immigration hearings and court appearances.

Lopez said he didn’t think when he was 12 years old that he could have endured what children crossing the border today go through once they leave their country. But, sometimes the situation is so bad in their country, the family feels the child has to leave.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement recently published data for unaccompanied children that it has released to sponsors from January through July 31. Of the 37,477 total children released to sponsors, 1,048 are in Louisiana. The majority of these children are now living in Jefferson (533) and Orleans (237) parishes. Gutierrez said this is due to many of the children coming from Honduras and the high concentration of Hondurans in the area.

Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge continues to collaborate with CCANO by organizing orientation sessions for the families and/or sponsors of those unaccompanied children. One such event was held Sept. 5 at the Hispanic Apostolate, and 70 families attended. 

“This was the fourth such session,” Gutierrez said.

After this group orientation, Gutierrez said the attorneys and Catholic Charities staff conduct a screening of each family that is later used to determine if they have a good shot at one of the visas to remain in the United States. Then, Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge attorneys work with Ware|Gasparian’s PB&J project to match qualified attorneys with clients. Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge has established “La Esperanza Project” to provide legal immigration services in Louisiana, Gutierrez said.

Legal counsel is lone hope
Undocumented children are not given court-appointed legal counsel and have few resources. That’s why it’s so important to have volunteer attorneys help juveniles navigate a confusing process that could take a year or two before the children actually appear before a judge.

Another concern is getting undocumented children to their court date. Many times they live with undocumented individuals who are afraid themselves of deportation if they appear in court, so a court date is missed. But if a child misses a court date, they could face an order or removal from the country, a panelist said.

Gutierrez said 60 attorneys and/or paralegals registered for the CLE seminar, yet more than 100 people were in attendance – a pleasant surprise, he said. Interpreters also were present to teach lawyers how to interact with interpretation and the role of interpreters in court.

“It means that people realize that this is a humanitarian crisis, and these children should be considered refugees and they should be able to go through the legal process (to remain here),” Gutierrez said.

Attorneys in attendance received six hours of Continuing Legal Education credit and agreed to take or assist with an immigration case.

The challenge, Gutierrez said, is how Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans will be able to sustain assistance – whether it’s legal assistance or just basic needs (such as food) – going forward.

“We are concerned about that and also concerned about the mental health of children,” he said about the unaccompanied youth. “They have been traumatized in their own country, they’ve face horror along their journey and are adjusting to life in the United States.”

Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans is fine-tuning the details to sustain assistance for immigration cases. In the meantime, it is providing volunteer interpreters for non-bilingual attorneys and office space (at the Hispanic Apostolate) for attorneys to meet with clients and other immigration meeting.

This immigration issue has a special significance to attorney Luis Leitzelar, 47, who attended the seminar. He was born in the United States to parents from Honduras who were sponsored by relatives in the mid-60s. His parents received their green cards fairly soon after arriving in the U.S., but it was a long path to citizenship. Leitzelar said his mom came in 1964 and became a citizen in 1976; his dad came in 1965 and became a citizen in 1982.

“If there is a way I can help these immigrant children, I’d like to do so,” Leitzelar, an attorney with Jones Walker’s law office in Baton Rouge said. Since he specializes in commercial business litigation and environmental law, he said he thinks he could assist in an immigration case by helping families navigate the court process. He is bilingual and has offered to volunteer with the Esperanza Project.

“These are children in need,” Leitzelar said “This transcends politics, and they need representation. This is the least we can do as lawyer to help those children who don’t otherwise have a voice.”

Another CLE is planned, but the date and location have not yet been set. In addition to attorneys who can do pro-bono work, bilingual volunteers who can help with paperwork and translations also are needed. Call Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans at 310-6914.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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