Supporting unaccompanied children through IRC Washington Children's Legal Service Program 

In the past eight years, over 5,150 unaccompanied immigrant children have been released to sponsors in Washington State, with over 1,300 of these unaccompanied children arriving in this last year alone.  These children come to the U.S. to escape family violence, gang violence, gender-based violence, extreme poverty, natural disasters caused by climate change, generations of persecution, and much more. To reach the US, unaccompanied children make very dangerous journeys - walking, riding buses or on tops of trains, joining caravans, and sometimes experiencing trafficking schemes. All the children are placed in immigration removal proceedings and do not receive court appointed attorneys.

The IRC Washington has received a grant through the Vera Institute of Justice and Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide legal representation to unaccompanied children. This winter, a team of experienced immigration legal practitioners joined IRC Washington to create the Children’s Legal Services (CLS) program. Currently the team is comprised of Janet Gwilym as Managing Attorney, Jamaica Abare as Children’s Attorney, and Delia Tran as Legal Assistant.  

To be eligible for services, unaccompanied children must be under the age of 18 at the time they enter the CLS program, have no immigration status, and, at some time, have been officially designated as an unaccompanied child by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The majority of unaccompanied children enter the United States at the Southern border and come into contact with border officials who identify them as unaccompanied children, meaning that they are traveling alone or without their parents. Within 72 hours, border officials transfer them into the custody of ORR where they are placed in an ORR shelter for unaccompanied children. These shelters are located throughout the United States. While at the ORR shelters, the staff work with the children to identify sponsors who the children can be released to. Nearly all sponsors are family members or close adult friends – someone who the child knew from their home country. The sponsors undergo extensive paperwork, background checks, and sometimes home studies before the children are released to their care.  Once the children are released, they eventually receive notices placing them in removal proceedings and informing them to appear at a hearing in an Immigration Court.

Children are allowed to retain attorneys but they do not get government appointed attorneys. Unaccompanied children who have come to the United States without their parents and escaping violence and poverty, do not have the resources, education, and connections to find skilled immigration attorneys. Through referrals from the legal services providers at the ORR shelters they stayed in, schools, other unaccompanied children, and community programs, including IRC’s many programs, the CLS team gets connected to the children and begins the representation process. As with all of the IRC Washington’s programs, services are provided through a trauma informed, child-centered lens. CLS staff work with the children to teach them the role of an attorney and that the children are always “the boss” - they get to make the final decisions. We help them understand the immigration systems, prepare them for their hearings, evaluate and advise them on the types of immigration applications they can file, and assist them with preparing their filings.  For many of the children, their cases will also involve hearings in the Washington state courts and CLS staff provide preparation and representation for these hearings as well. The children’s cases take several years to complete but the CLS Team is committed to walking alongside the children throughout their immigration legal journey. The CLS Team also taps into other IRC Washington programs to get additional support for the children when needed, such as educational resources or mental health counseling.