Sunday, January 3, 2016

Importance of Legal Aid to Refugees

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Since the unaccompanied minor surge in the US in 2014 I have personally witnessed the struggle refugee children and their families experience on their legal journey to try to remain in the U.S. As a legal assistant at a non-profit law firm, I work children and young adults who are victims of sex trafficking and also with unaccompanied minors who were detained crossing the U.S border without a parent or legal guardian.

 Whether it be employment, a better life or freedom, the truth is that migration dynamics have changed not only in the U.S but nationally. Recently, migration is commonly about fleeing gangs, drug trafficking, or religious percussion.  Regardless of being Mexican, Salvadorian, Syrian, or Afghan, what many refugees have in common is that they are leaving their homes due to fear of being harmed, they are looking for a safe environment to live in.

While assistance like housing, clothing, food and welfare services are important to help refugees looking to re-settle in a new country, equally important are legal services.  Most do not understand how detrimental and challenging the process is for refugee applicants. Refugees have to maneuver difficult application procedures that include countless paperwork, interviews, deadlines and the most agonizing step; waiting for a response. Those who are denied then have to endure a grueling and emotional appeal process in hopes that the country that denied them may re-consider. Refugees are in a vulnerable position, as many of them have suffered great loss and have had to leave their homes. When applying for refugee status for other countries, the legal application process is tedious and extremely stressful as any slip-up can negatively affect those seeking safety.

Legal aid workers make significant contributions by empowering those who are unfamiliar with a foreign country’s language, requirements and legal system.  Besides assistance in representation, completing paperwork or appeals, legal aid is beneficial as attorneys have the power and resources to make changes to current policy and legislation. Like the recent Assembly Bill 900 (AB900) which expanded eligibility for Special Immigration Juvenile Status (SIJS). SIJS is a federal law that helps eligible youth obtain lawful immigration status. AB 900 aligns state and federal law in order to protect unaccompanied immigrant youth. Beginning on January 1, 2016, probate courts will be allowed to grant guardianship and issue SIJS orders to young adults up to 21 years old. Formerly, the limit age to petition for a guardianship was 17, as a minor was recognized as an adult at age 18. This new law will provide youth a better opportunity to adjust to life by allowing them to have an adult guardian by extending the age limit for SIJS eligibility.

Understanding forced migration and human trafficking is difficult and even more so when the victim is a child. Obtaining a more comprehensive experience of what my clients experience will allow me to better serve their needs. As I prepare to embark on this journey to learn about forced migration; I cannot help but wonder not only what impact this trip might have on me, but how I can use that knowledge to make a difference at home. 

Additional links:
Unaccompanied minors:

Assembly Bill 900:

 Special Immigration Juvenile Status:

Prepared by Adeline Del Real