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'They've done the hard part'

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Connie Palen, UNLV Law

UNLV law professor Michael Kagan directs a legal clinic that helps undocumented children.

Last Thursday evening, November 16, the stars of the local legal scene — Barbara Buckley, Jason Frierson, Harry Reid — gathered in an auditorium-style classroom at UNLV’s law school. One by one, dignitaries took to the podium to thank a couple seated in the front row, the attorney Edward Bernstein and his wife Sylvia. The Bernsteins had given the law school a quarter-million-dollar donation, which will be used to keep running an unaccompanied children’s immigration program that lost its federal funding last year.

The crowd fidgeted like students back at their desks after all these years, coughing and rattling programs — that is, until UNLV law professor Michael Kagan, who directs the immigration clinic, began to speak. Kagan opened with startling statistics showing how few cases, of the of thousands currently wending their way through Las Vegas Immigration Court, succeed in a system that grants them no right to an attorney. He illustrated what this means for minors, in particular, with stark examples from his clinic’s case file. An excerpt of his speech follows, and a warning for sensitive readers: It includes detailed descriptions of violent acts.

In our clinic, known as the Bernstein Children's Rights Program, about three-quarters of our clients are children. I want everyone to know that right now there are 1,500 children in deportation proceedings at the Las Vegas Immigration Court. That's 1,500 children alone. That's not counting children who are with their families. We represent only a few of them. There are more than 400 of them who still do not have representation right here in Las Vegas. They are also teenagers, but our youngest client was 3 when we started on his case. Their cases take a long time. We often get to hear the boys' voices crack and get deeper during the time we're working with them. They're middle-school kids, and they're sometimes awkward and shy. It's sometimes hard to get the, especially older, boys to talk to us. Sometimes our clients make holiday cards for our lawyers. They write, "Para mi abogada" ("for my attorney") in crayon or marker. They're kids. 

The reason these kids are here is not appropriate for children at all. Right now, in our clinic, we have 108 open cases of children who arrived in the U.S. alone. Some of them know what a dead body looks like after a person has been shot or stabbed. Some of the girls have been raped. Some of them have been told that they had to date a gang member or die. In many cases, their caregivers were told they had to pay extortion money or watch their children be hacked to death. We represent a 10-year-old girl who witnessed her 8-year-old friend kidnapped from a playground. She heard the screams. 

Going to the United States is typically not the first plan for people who try to protect these children. When we interview the kids, we often hear about how they went into hiding. Their parents or their relatives their aunts or uncles moved from house to house, village to village, hoping for safety. Weeks without sleep. Nights fearing any noise outside the house. But you have to go out and get food. The kids have to go back to school. And in El Salvador, and Honduras, and Guatemala, the MS13 and the 18th Street gangs are relentless. The threats keep coming.

Eventually, families send their children north. They're called "unaccompanied children" because they make this journey alone. They travel through Mexico alone. They walk for days alone. They ride a notorious train called "the Beast" alone. They deal with organized criminals alone. Until they reach the United States border. They do this because they're terrified. The reason they end up in Las Vegas is usually because they have family here. They have roots here, actually. In some cases, their parents have been working here and sending money home while their children live with relatives. 

I want to read you an excerpt from a declaration that one of our clients gave in this situation: "I left El Salvador because it was dangerous. My parents were afraid something bad would happen to me. I was afraid too. There were a lot of gangs there. I really was afraid of them, because they killed my grandma and my uncle. I lived with my great-grandmother. I liked living with her. She would try to protect me from the gangs. But I was always afraid when I left the house. I was afraid the gangs would steal me. I heard that the gangs would kidnap girls and then take out their organs and then stuff them with money. They would send the parents a note that said, 'Thank you for your child's organs.'"

That was told to us by a 9-year-old girl. She was three years younger than my oldest daughter is now. These are not thoughts or fears that any child should have. One day, her family told her that she had to go live with her aunts. Eventually, she had to leave for the United States, because her great-grandmother had died. They told her that her great-grandmother was just very old. But when she got here to Las Vegas and joined her parents, they told her the truth: Her great-grandmother, who had played with and raised her, and tried to protect here, had been shot and murdered. 

Children should have the right to not live in fear. They should be able to look to the future. For these children, the position of the Department of Homeland Security is that they should be sent back to where they came from. Back when we started this work, Kaitlyn and Alissa, our first Americorps attorneys, shared a very crowded office right across the hall from mine. They had the names of all the children they represented up on a white board. After a while, I started to notice, on one of their walls, little canvases with colorful hand prints. They looked like this. (See photo above.) 

They had started getting decisions back on their first cases, and they were winning them. Kaitlyn and Alissa started having the kids come in to give them the good news and talk about next steps, and then they would ask them to make a hand print. More and more hand prints went up on Kaitlyn and Alissa's wall. The children were going to be able to stay here safely. They would not be sent back to the gangs. We have a whole wall of hand prints like this now. I have given instructions to cover the next wall. We're working on it.

Kagan noted that programs like his all over the country are closing due to lack of funding. The situation for clients who need these services, he predicted, will only get direr in the coming years. But he closed on a note of hope, expressing gratitude for the donation that has allowed the Las Vegas program to continue.

“The children have already done the hard part,” he said. “They've survived. They made it here. … They all deserve a future. And they should not be alone anymore.”

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