Alexandra Rizio had already secured legal representation for several unaccompanied minors when she started getting the phone calls last spring. The attorneys broke the news to her, one after the other — they had to drop out from representing cases they had already agreed to take on pro bono.
Their own family members had gotten sick with COVID-19, some attorneys said. Others pointed to overwhelming family responsibilities they now had to take on as schools and day care facilities shuttered. The lawyers were simply not able to devote the time to the cases, they told her, even though they sincerely wanted to help.
This left at least four cases back in the hands of Rizio, who struggled again, from scratch, to make sure these children would not have to brave the immigration court system without any legal support. This didn’t even account for the other cases she continued to grapple with, where pro bono attorneys weren’t signing to represent unaccompanied minors in the first place.
“It was definitely worrisome, and I think it made me realize that the pandemic was impacting just everything, including young immigrants’ ability to access quality legal services,” said Rizio, who is the managing attorney at Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit organization that helps provide pro bono legal help to refugee and immigrant children in the New York City area. “We’ve definitely seen a drop off in the number of attorneys who are able to take on cases right now.”
The City’s nonprofits that assist unaccompanied minors in finding legal representation are now finding it harder to secure pro bono help during a time when it is sorely needed. Because of this, advocates say, it is possible that more unaccompanied minors will have to confront the complex immigration system alone without an attorney—which can diminish the likelihood of them staying in the United States.
In the past, the Safe Passage Project would be able to successfully find a pro bono attorney for an unaccompanied child within 30 days, Rizio said. But now, it’s taking at least two months to find them legal representation. “That’s worrisome to me because I think the rate of kids arriving is only going to increase,” she said.
So far, 3,582 unaccompanied migrant children have been released to sponsors in New York State from October to May of the 2021 fiscal year, which ends at the end of September, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). In the 2020 fiscal year—which was largely marked by the pandemic—1,663 unaccompanied children were released in New York State from October of 2019 to September of 2020.
And though the number of border crossings has historically had ebbs and flows, Rizio noted, Safe Passage Project is expecting an increase of children arriving in the area.
New York has the fourth highest number of unaccompanied children released from federal custody in the 2021 fiscal year so far, after Texas, Florida and California, data from ORR shows.
Some of the big law firms that take on pro bono work had to furlough staff during the pandemic. They weren’t able to invest the same kind of energy into free legal services as they had previously, said Anthony Enriquez, the Director of the Unaccompanied Minors Program at Catholic Charities Community Services in New York City.
“There was really a lot of uncertainty,” he said about the pandemic, noting that the world wasn’t sure if there would be a longer-term economic downturn. When that happened, he said, resources contracted across the private sector.
Now, attorneys and organizations in New York must figure out how to manage more than double the number of children needing legal representation this fiscal year compared to last—in some cases, with fewer resources.
Another pandemic hurdle in securing legal representation for unaccompanied children was the closure of the courts, Enriquez of Catholic Charities said. Usually, representatives from Catholic Charities and other organizations could physically go to the courts and make sure it was known that their services were available. But with that space shuttered. It also became more difficult to place pro bono cases with law firms. Few private firms were in a position to take on pro bono legal cases indefinitely, as it was unclear when the courts would reopen for hearings, he said.
Rizio of the Safe Passage Project fears that the court closures had left behind unaccompanied children in urgent need of legal help. “I’m positive that there are kids who have been released from ORR to live with sponsors in NY, and we don’t even know about it yet because the traditional method of contact hasn’t been operating,” she said.
Data shows that the chances of a judge issuing a removal order in a case involving a juvenile are higher if the child does not have legal representation.
From fiscal years 2005-2021, more than 88 percent of completed cases involving juveniles in court deportation proceedings, who were not represented by an attorney in New York state, ended in the judge issuing a removal order, according to data from the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. In the same time period, about 37 percent of completed cases involving juveniles in court deportation — ended in a removal order.
So while unaccompanied children await to see if they’ll be able to secure legal help, “they’re left in limbo, they don’t know what’s happening,” Rizio of Safe Passage Project said.
She added: “The faster we can get them matched up and they can start actually working on their case and accomplishing things towards stabilizing their status, the better off they’re going to be.”