The Trump administration is not providing legal services to migrant children in a newly opened temporary facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, in what advocates say is a violation of law.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the government agency that operates all shelters for migrant children, has confirmed it has not yet contracted with any legal aid providers to give the kids access to counsel. The children face deportation proceedings and are already getting court dates, according to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which has stepped in to offer free legal counsel in the absence of a contract.
RAICES, a legal services and advocacy group that represents unaccompanied minors in 13 shelters throughout Texas, told HuffPost that the administration is violating its legal obligations to provide the children with lawyers and is putting them in danger. The group decided to send lawyers to the Carrizo Springs facility on Tuesday on a pro bono basis, and plans to visit weekly so that the children will not be taken advantage of and deported without access to legal aid.
“We are filling a gap that should absolutely be a government-provided service required under the law,” said Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of RAICES. “Without the intervention of an attorney, these children have essentially no chance of navigating the complex court system.”
Federal law requires that the government “shall ensure, to the greatest extent practicable,” that unaccompanied migrant children who face court proceedings have access to legal counsel. And a court settlement specifies that every detained child should be informed of their legal rights.
ORR has six regional contracts with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research organization, which then subcontracts to legal providers such as RAICES to work in certain shelters. A spokesperson from Vera told HuffPost that the organization seeks to provide legal services at all newly opened facilities, and is trying to clarify with ORR whether its contracts cover two other recently opened facilities. “The nonprofit would be extremely concerned if the government seeks to avoid covering legal services at these shelters,” the representative wrote.
“A person lost in the desert needs water, a person in famine needs food, a child in detention needs a lawyer.”
An ORR spokesperson, who did not provide a name, said the office has no legal obligation to pay for attorneys to represent unaccompanied children. The representative also acknowledged that more than one facility did not have a contract in place for legal service providers, but did not respond to HuffPost’s question about which shelters they were referring to.
The representative also claimed that all children at Carrizo Springs were transferred from other shelters where they had already been screened for asylum eligibility or other relief, and had been given presentations on their legal rights.
But Ryan said RAICES lawyers spoke with kids this week who had not received either.
Meanwhile, children at Carrizo Springs are already being told to appear in immigration court even though they are being held in an emergency shelter, something that didn’t happen under the Obama administration, according to Ryan. Without access to lawyers, children won’t know their legal rights, when to show up in court and what they should say to an immigration judge. Ultimately, they are at a greater risk of being deported.
“The legal interventions that we make are literally lifesaving,” said Ryan. “A person lost in the desert needs water, a person in famine needs food, a child in detention needs a lawyer.”
The ORR representative said the office is working “to ensure that the legal services contracts are updated to include Carrizo Springs.”
The facility, a former oilfield worker camp 110 miles from San Antonio, opened on June 30 to alleviate overcrowded U.S. Border Patrol stations where children linger for days in squalid conditions. The 27-acre property with trailers where kids sleep and go to school, and a giant air-conditioned tent where they eat, is unlicensed, meaning it isn’t required to follow the state’s child welfare standards.
Children have described prisonlike conditions in other temporary facilities, such as a now-closed tent camp in Tornillo, Texas, and in a facility in Homestead, Florida. There are currently a few hundred children being held in Carrizo Springs, but it has the capacity to hold 1,300.
Ryan said his team assumed Carrizo Springs would be part of Vera’s contract once the facility opened, but by late June, he found out this was not the case.
BCFS Health and Human Services, the nonprofit contractor that operates the facility, has 10 private offices set up for legal services, according to Krista Piferrer, the executive vice president of external affairs. She said staff have been “supportive of and requesting legal services” for children.
An ORR representative told HuffPost that the government hasn’t been able to contract legal services for Carrizo Springs because of funding issues. On June 5, ORR announced that it would stop offering legal aid, English lessons and soccer because of budget constraints, and on June 27 Congress passed a funding bill that allocated $2.9 billion for detained children.
“In simplest terms the money doesn’t immediately arrive when a Bill is signed into law and then the contract must be established,” the spokesperson said.
Ryan doesn’t buy that logic. He said the emergency funds are already being used for enforcement purposes, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. If money were really the issue, he added, ORR could have asked lawyers to start providing services that the government would later compensate them for.
ORR will not even allow Vera to pay RAICES using emergency funds it has set aside as part of a preexisting contract, specifically to provide legal services in emergency shelters that open on a short timeline.
Instead, an ORR employee emailed RAICES on July 13 to say that lawyers were welcome to give pro bono legal aid to migrant children, so long as they weren’t receiving any money from Vera.
Ryan believes the lack of funding for legal services at Carrizo Springs is another example of the government’s cruel attitude toward immigrants. Though his team has spoken with ORR employees on the ground who said they support a contract, he says these officials are taking orders from “an administration that is dead set against providing anything but deterrence for immigrants.”
“The president has already expressed very strong antipathy towards Central American people, including children,” Ryan said. “It’s extremely disappointing that in this administrative war against immigrants there’s no quarter for children.”
Immigrant children should always have access to legal services, regardless of where they are being held, said Mayra Jimenez, the children’s program director at RAICES who gave know-your-rights presentations at Carrizo Springs this week.
“They have no say in where they are detained,” she said. “They should have the same access other children have.”
Ryan said RAICES attorneys are looking into whether they can take legal action against the administration over the lack of a contract. In the meantime, they will continue providing legal services to migrant children at their own cost ― and keep an eye on how kids are being treated.
Without lawyers visiting these facilities, he said, the public would not know about the horrific conditions in Border Patrol stations, or any potential abuses that go on at ORR shelters. But having lawyers around is not in the interest of an administration focused on depicting immigrants as dangerous criminals.
“It would be undermining to that principle for lawyers to be capable of explaining to courts and the public that these are victims and vulnerable children,” Ryan said. “The truth does not support racist and xenophobic policies against all immigrants.”