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Separated children face uncertain future

A conversation with Janet Gwilym, Managing Attorney of the Seattle office of Kids In Need of Defense (KIND)

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) provides free legal services to unaccompanied immigrate children. Currently, the Seattle office is representing the 11 children separated from their parents and brought to Washington as a result of the Department of Justice’s recent “zero-tolerance” immigration crack down. In addition to the 11 separated children, KIND represents  all the unaccompanied children in Washington that are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), with a current total caseload of 455 children.

KIND is a national organization founded in 2008 through a partnership between Microsoft and Angelina Jolie. Its mission is to make sure that no unaccompanied child has to appear in immigration court alone.  In 2013, the national organization merged with a Seattle-based immigration non-profit called Volunteer Attorneys for Immigrant Justice to open the Seattle KIND office. This week spoke with managing attorney Janet Gwilym about the current crisis, the children here in Washington, and what we all can do to help.

Note – this interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Marjie High: Tell me a little about your organization and what your aims are?

Janet Gwilym: Our mission is to have  that no unaccompanied child has to appear in immigration court alone.  That they have representation. We do that both by direct representation by attorneys in our office and also we have a very large network of volunteer attorneys and corporate counsel  that we connect the kids up with. The Seattle office is a little bit different than most of the KIND offices in that we serve both kids that have been released to sponsors into the community, but also all of the kids that are in ORR custody in Washington state.

So we go in [to facilities] and do know you rights presentations and then an intensive intake to determine what kind of immigration legal relief they are eligible for. Then we strategize whether we take on their case or, if they are going to be reunified soon out of state,  we need to wait on the until they get to their new place. If they do move out of state,  then we do try to connect them with legal services wherever they are going.

What about the children?

MH:  During the course of your representation of children, how many children has your organization represented?

JG:  The Seattle office right now has 455 cases open that we are currently representing and that’s just the Seattle office. As of September 2017, we [KIND] has represented 15,380 children nationally.

MH:  Can you confirm if you are representing some of the separated children that have been brought here to Washington?

JG: The separated children that have come to Washington state are in the ORR facilities in Washington state and we represent all the children in the ORR facilities, so yes.

MH: Can you tell me how many of them there are?

JG:  I think we have identified 11 in the last 8 months or so.

MH: So were there some then that were separated before the most recent policy went into place?

JG: Yes – actually what I should say is that that the zero-tolerance policy that started in late April. Before that they were testing it out so we saw a few kids that came through in the testing phases.

MH:  What age range are the separated kids that you are representing here?

JG: They are 12-17 because that’s the range that the ORR facilities in Washington state serve. We have seen them in that whole range.

MH: Are any of the kids siblings or do they know each other at all?

JG: None of them are siblings and none of them knew each other before they started the journey. A couple I think met along the way.

MH: Where are the children from?

JG: They are all from Central America – the Northern Triangle Countries [El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras].

MH: How is their mental health? Have they faced trauma in their lives and on their journeys?

JG: Yes – definitely. There is a reason why they all came in the first place – why their parents are bringing them here. So yes, they are facing pretty traumatic experiences back home and then being re-traumatize as they are being separated from their parents. That has been really tough. And the uncertainty of not knowing if they are ever going see their parents again that’s been really hard.

MH: Are they provided with adequate mental health services?

JG: Yes – they do get that. They all have counselors and regular counseling. That’s part of the ORR package of what they do.

What is the government doing to reunify families?

MH: Do you know of any efforts to actually reunite the children with their parents at this point?

JH: Yes – actually the ORR staff here have been really good about trying to locate the parents

 One early on was reunited, but I think that’s the only one so far.

We have also had parents that we know have been deported and the kids are still here.

MH: Has it been a problem figuring out where the parents are?

JG: Yes – has been very difficult, especially at the beginning. We had no information and we kind of just had to put a puzzle together by trying to figure out what the story was and what facilities were in the area.  And then we would investigate who are the legal services providers in that area that maybe could poke around for us.

We also tried to use the locator system where you could enter in the A numbers (locator numbers assigned to parents), but we didn’t have the A numbers for the parents so we were hoping that the  number would be consecutive to the child’s and enter that in. We did locate one that way.  But the more recent cases, the numbers  aren’t consecutive at all.

Now, there have been some systems that have been set up, by non-profits, not by the government, that are trying to gather as much of the kids information and as much of the parent information and help make matches.

MH: Are any of their parents located here in Washington?

JG: No, they are not and they do not look at all at where the parents are located to figure out where to send the kids and vice versa. There’s no communication between the systems.

MH: Have the kids been able to contact their parents at all or is that completely impossible without knowing their location?

JG: Yes – they have to figure out the location first. Then the case workers have been working to make the connections. I’m not sure exactly how they are doing it and it depends on where the parents are being held. Some parents have the ability to call out when the message gets to them about where the child is at. Once the kids get connected the ORR staff try to do regular phone calls.

MH: What would you say is the longest period of time some of these children have not had communication with their parents?

JG: For some it was several weeks before they made the first connection.

MH: Are they all in communication now?

JG: Yes – I think so.

The biggest thing is just the uncertainty.

MH: Have any of the kids had immigration proceedings yet?

JG: Some have and some haven’t. They are all supposed to be placed into removal proceedings. Some of them have had hearings scheduled and some haven’t.

MH: Are their proceedings independent of their parents’ immigration proceedings or are they in some way connected?

JG: Right now, the ones that have had them are not connected to their parents’ cases.  They are independent.

MH: Do you have any idea of how that will work in terms of reuniting the children with their parents? Are they trying to coordinate that at all?

JG: That is the big question. We don’t know what is happening with that. We have heard a lot of rumors. Once the kids are in the ORR system, ORR begins working on a reunification plan. And that is not necessarily with a parent. It’s with someone who is living in the US, a relative or an acceptable friend. I mean they can’t be detained if there is a less restrictive alternative, so they are working on trying to release them. But if the parent eventually gets released and goes to that relative as well, then that’s how the family will get reunified.

But otherwise, there has been a lot of questions. Like what if the parent takes a deportation order? How do they get their child? Can the child be reunited through a deportation? It is tough because they kids may have a separate claim for being here.

MH: I know last week there was the order out of San Diego order that kids be reunited with in 30 days. Have you seen any effects of that? Or do you know what the plan is?

JG: No – it is really up in the air. We just don’t know what’s going to happen.

MH: If their parents are detained in Department of Homeland Security custody, does that mean that the children will remain separated because they cannot re-detain them?

JG: So, the kids are detained but they are in ORR’s custody, they are different departments of the government. So, the question is if they keep detaining the parents will they transfer the kids to a family detention setting which be a transfer out of ORR custody back to the Department of Homeland Security back to a detention center. If they will do that, I don’t know.

MH: There are no plans one way or the other at this point?

JG: Not that we are getting communicated to us.

MH: Is there anything else that you think would be important for people to know about these cases right now?

JG: Yes, for the separated children, the biggest thing is just the uncertainty that the kids and the parents face and the choices that they may have to make. It will be a choice of either staying together and being deported even though they have a claim to remain. They are running away from some awful, awful stuff – their lives are in danger. But the parents must decide, do I let my child stay in the US and I return to that dangerous situation, or do we both return to that dangerous situation together? That’s the worst part of it.

What can we do?

MH: Is there anything that we as regular people can do?

JG: On KIND’s website, there is a link (found here) with a bunch of actions listed.  Also, we rely on a big volunteer base to represent unaccompanied children and people can get involved that way too. We don’t have that many separated kids in our state, but it has really put a big strain in the system for representing unaccompanied children because even though they didn’t transfer so many of the separated children up here, they filled up all Washington ORR beds with other unaccompanied kids, the ones that arrived here without families, in order to create space down at the border centers for the separated kids.

We have just been facing cut after cut after cut of the due process rights of unaccompanied children. There is a report on our website “Death by a Thousand Cuts” that talks about all of the changes that have happened in the last year. So, we are always looking for representation for the kids and it doesn’t have to be just attorneys, we take paralegals volunteers and interpreter volunteers – they don’t have to be certified interpreters.

MH: Do the attorneys have to be immigration attorneys?

JG: No, most of our attorney are not immigration attorneys. Immigration attorneys are kind of stretched right now so it’s hard to find them, but we have a lot of mentoring materials and trainings and we will share those with anybody who signs up.

MH: Are there any sites that you know of that are particularly reputable for monetary donations?

JG: We take monetary donations.

For local donations, we have been asking people to donate to the Seattle Office Emergency Fund. A big issue that are kids face is when they turn 18 they risk being transferred to adult detention if they don’t have an immigration application approved. But if we can show that they have some stability in the community and a place to go and a place to live, then we can avoid that adult detention.

We have this emergency fund that we tap into to provide some of that stability. So, for example we get phones for the kids so that they can stay in touch with their attorneys. We get Safeway cards so they can buy food or Target cards so that they can buy clothes – stuff like that. Also, we are very short-staffed so people’s donations are also going to hiring more attorney to help out these kids.

MH: Thank you so much for talking and thank you so much for what you do, because I know it is very necessary.

JG: Well thank you. And thank you for getting the word out.