The boy with almond eyes and jet black curls sat timidly before Judge Yon Alberdi, struggling to understand questions from the man speaking English behind the bench.
“How old are you today?” Alberdi asked the high school freshman during a hearing at Las Vegas’ immigration court two weeks ago.
“Good,” he replied softly before his attorney chimed in to help. The boy, 14, seeks U.S. asylum from his native El Salvador, Katelyn Leese told Alberdi.
His journey to Las Vegas was long and perilous. Two years ago he fled Mara Salvatrucha gang members who controlled his neighborhood and who threatened to kill him if he did not smuggle drugs. Along the way, Mexican cartel members kidnapped him and extorted $4,000 from relatives. He eventually crossed the Mexican border into Texas.
The teen, who on the advice of his lawyer asked not to be identified for this story, is among dozens of clients represented by Leese and fellow attorney Alissa Cooley in Las Vegas through a federal program that offers free aid to minors who illegally enter the country without a parent or guardian. They’re part of a wave of undocumented children from Central America who have flocked to the U.S. since the late 2000s, flooding shelters and adding to a backlog of more than 375,000 immigration court cases nationwide.
“People are desperate,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who specializes in Latin American affairs. “Even knowing they could be raped or encounter organized crime groups, (immigrants) continue to do the journey because they don’t find better possibilities in their country.”
President Barack Obama has called the surge a humanitarian crisis. In 2009, U.S. Border Patrol agents detained about 3,300 unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. That number ballooned to about 52,000 in 2014, dipped to 28,000 last year and spiked again early this year.
“I grew up in Phoenix, and I never really understood why the government tries to deport people,” Leese said, echoing a sentiment that stands in stark contrast to calls for more enforcement amid the nation’s intensifying immigration debate. “It destroys families.”
From a cramped office they share at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic, Leese and Cooley have spent the past year helping dozens of minors navigate the Byzantine immigration system in search of deportation relief. Since graduating from Boyd Law School in 2014, they’ve offered to help 89 obtain legal status through a service sponsored by the federal AmeriCorps community aid program. It’s grueling work that often spills into nights and weekends, paying about $24,000 per year.
“If we didn’t take some of these cases, we don’t know who would,” Leese said as she sipped a tall cup of black coffee in their office one evening. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day.”
While two other nonprofit groups in the Las Vegas Valley also offer legal assistance to the minors, resources are scarce and demand is high. Leese and Cooley share the load with attorneys at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, but no other group takes as many complicated and time-consuming cases as the UNLV clinic.
“These kids come in, and they’re running away from horrible things,” said Sarah Perez, an immigration attorney at the Las Vegas-based Hamilton Law firm who regularly takes cases at no charge. “Sometimes Katelyn and Alissa are the only ones on their side, and there’s so many of them.”
Deportation relief is available through a variety of channels. Some minors can apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile status, a visa for children who were abandoned, abused or neglected by their parents. Those visas require family court filings and generally at least six months, which leave out minors who are about to turn 18. Minors can also apply for a visa reserved for victims of crime and human trafficking.
Asylum — what many of Leese and Cooley’s clients seek — is generally considered the most difficult option. To qualify, children must meet a strict definition in U.S. immigration law: “a person who comes to the United States seeking protection because they have suffered persecution or fear that they will suffer persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” In lay terms, that means that to stay in the U.S. legally, they must show they are afraid to go home for specific reasons.
“I think this is a problem we see in the entire nonprofit field,” said Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps. “There are always more needs than there are resources to address them.”
The AmeriCorps initiative for unaccompanied minors, dubbed “justice AmeriCorps,” is in its second year. After receiving about $2 million from the Justice Department its first year, organizers enlisted 75 AmeriCorps members who helped nearly 1,100 children during the program’s first six months.
“It’s by no means easy,” Warfield said. “For us to be able to be a part of a solution, whatever small piece that may be, we are so proud to be able to do.”
Hopes for the Future
The attorneys are now serving a second year in the program — most AmeriCorps members complete just one, Warfield said.
“I do this for the feeling you get when you hand someone their permanent resident card,” Cooley said. “We shouldn’t have to remind people what’s at stake here.”
Leese points to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse which shows that between 2004 and 2014, 53 percent of children without attorneys in Nevada immigration court were ordered deported. With a lawyer, only 14 percent were deported.
They fear for the program’s future, hopeful it will get a boost in funding and more participants. Who will tackle such a heavy burden after Leese and Cooley can no longer live paycheck-to-paycheck?
Their office is filled with mementos of their clients, who range from 2 to 17 years old. Six little handprints in a rainbow of colors adorn canvases hung above a coffee table, each representing a court victory for Leese and Cooley through the Special Immigrant Juvenile status program.
“The only case I’ve ever lost is an asylum case,” Leese said.
For now, they soldier on, powered by their successes in court and the affection of the children they help. One small win came when Leese convinced Alberdi and a Homeland Security lawyer to suspend hearings for the Salvadoran teen. He’ll remain free until U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services decides if it will grant asylum.
“I’m very thankful for everything she’s done for me,” the boy said in Spanish as a smile spread across his face. “We’ve advanced a lot on this case, and it’s all been thanks to her.”
Contact Ana Ley at email@example.com or 702-224-5512. Find her on Twitter @la__ley