From October 2013 to June 2014, 1,532 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in the U.S. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), one of two government agencies that hear asylum cases, adjudicated 167 such cases during that period. Of those cases, 108 of the children were granted asylum. Many unaccompanied minors have applied for other categories of protection that allow them to stay in the country.
Meanwhile, from July 18, 2014 to October 7, 2014, immigration judges ordered 1,252 unaccompanied children deported, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, part of the Department of Justice. Often, those orders are appealed.
Many unaccompanied minors across the country do not have access to an attorney: The government is not required to provide legal representation in immigration court to children who aren’t citizens, and few can afford to hire an attorney.
In the Bronx, Shapiro and Stark are trying to serve as many of the 433 unaccompanied minors who have settled in the borough as they can. They’ve named their medical-legal clinic Terra Firma, where they have seen about 50 unaccompanied minors since October 2013; they hope to help 200 more in 2015.
“The reason we’re pediatricians is that we’re looking out for the well-being of the child,” Shapiro says. “These are very vulnerable children who have needs that go above and beyond the other children you might see.”
Every other week, dozens of them file into the South Bronx Children and Family Health Center for Terra Firma. For two-and-a-half hours, the clinic provides healthcare, counseling, case management, and legal services for the children. Both pediatric and mental health care are available in Spanish, which can be hard to find elsewhere in the city.
As part of the New York Immigration Coalition, Shapiro has been working with the New York City health department to develop a health alert for all pediatricians detailing the medical needs for unaccompanied children, and how best to help them.
So far, the Terra Firma model appears to be a rarity, but something similar is taking shape in California. Los Angeles has received 2,474 unaccompanied minors from January through September of 2014. Elena Fernandez, behavioral health director of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, says psychologists at the clinic are being asked to provide psychological assessments for use in immigration hearings. Other times, their job is to help children testify themselves and prepare for what may arise during a hearing.
“It’s the clinician who has to determine whether the child is ready to testify and disclose in a hearing the level of trauma. Because you run the risk of them re-experiencing that trauma in a courtroom,” Fernandez says.
St. John’s has seen more than three times as many undocumented kids this fall as they did at the same time last year. Most of them, CEO Jim Mangia believes, are unaccompanied minors. The additional visits, most of which were pro bono, he says, have cost his clinics about $250,000 over a three-month period.
“This is a humanitarian crisis, a refugee crisis,” Mangia says. “These children have been kidnapped, brutalized, beaten, raped, sexually abused, and that’s why they’ve fled in the first place … There’s just a tremendous amount of trauma.”