Immigrant Justice Clinic gets creative to meet the needs of children facing deportation

October 2, 2014

Since last October, the U.S. Border Patrol has apprehended more than 60,000 Central American children who crossed the nation’s southern border on their own.

The number represents a sharp increase — up more than 100 percent from the previous year — that not only overwhelmed immigration authorities but also flooded the nation’s backlogged immigration courts.

News of the increase set off an emotional debate over the summer about how the U.S. government should handle cases involving unaccompanied children, many of whom fled their home countries to escape drug and gang violence.

Photo: Stacy Taeuber

Stacy Taeuber

And as elected officials continue to sort out the politics of the situation and news agencies document the controversy, the court system is left to handle the practicalities.

For law Professor Stacy Taeuber and students in the Immigrant Justice Clinic, meeting the legal needs of minors has meant a shift in strategy, not to mention some creative teamwork.

Based at University of Wisconsin Law School, the Immigrant Justice Clinic provides free legal support for immigrants facing deportation from the U.S. The clinic launched in 2012 after law students won a $112,000 Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea grant. Only recently has IJC begun fielding inquiries involving minors.

Taeuber and the Law School are looking for funding to continue the clinic’s work when the three-year Baldwin grant expires at the end of the academic year. UW Law’s Latino Law Student Association has organized a benefit in support of the IJC, which will be held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Best Western Hotel in downtown Madison.

To stay in the country lawfully, apprehended children must face authorities in federal immigration court, where they risk deportation just as adults do. In immigration court, even children have no guarantee of appointed counsel; without an attorney, they stand little chance of a favorable outcome.

“These children have experienced horrific circumstances in their countries of origin, so many of us in the legal system feel the need to protect them and keep them safe.”

Marsha Mansfield

Taeuber has found that one of the best legal paths for children involves pursuing Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. SIJS was designed to help foreign children stay in the U.S. when they have been subjected to abuse, abandonment or neglect by a parent in their home country.

“Obtaining Special Immigrant Justice Status involves two parts, beginning with a very specific family law component, an area of law that until now hasn’t fallen within the Immigrant Justice Clinic’s area of expertise,” Taeuber says.

So she and her students enlisted the help of the Family Court Clinic at the UW Law School. Law students in the clinics have so far collaborated on cases involving children who have no parent or legal guardian, as well as children attempting to escape an abusive parent in their home country. The collaboration means that students in both clinics have to learn about each other’s areas of law.

Before SIJS can be granted, a state court must take jurisdiction over the child, whether in the context of a custody, guardianship or other proceeding. In the course of that proceeding, the court must find that reuniting with one or both of the child’s parents is not viable, and that returning the child to their country of nationality or last residence is not in his or her best interest.

Marsha Mansfield, a law professor who directs the Family Court Clinic, says that besides learning from each other, students also found themselves educating the courts. Since claims to Special Immigrant Juvenile Status are fairly new in Wisconsin, the legal system is struggling to keep up with the state’s growing noncitizen populations.

Photo: Marsha Mansfield

Marsha Mansfield

“Clinic staff and students have made a very deliberate effort to craft the motions and provide judges with the legal authority to understand the available options,” Mansfield says.

Judges typically prefer to base their decisions on legal precedent, but Mansfield says the courts are motivated to find solutions for unaccompanied children.

“These children have experienced horrific circumstances in their countries of origin, so many of us in the legal system feel the need to protect them and keep them safe,” Mansfield says.

As immigration laws change and the needs of the area’s immigrant community evolve, the Immigrant Justice Clinic strives to adapt. Recently the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement reported that, as of July 31, 60 children had been relocated to Wisconsin and placed with sponsors. The clinics took on their fourth case involving a minor this fall, and received an additional inquiry earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Taeuber and her students have been watching the national immigration scene closely.

“If unaccompanied children continue to relocate to Wisconsin, that will really change what we do,” Taeuber says.

In total, the clinic has provided legal services for more than 70 cases, with 26 UW Law students participating in the program. For four graduates of the program, practicing immigration law in Wisconsin has become a career.

—Tammy Kempfert