September 2015 Bar Bulletin
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September 2015 Bar Bulletin

Legal Help Forecast for Immigrant Children in Washington

 

 

Weather forecasts are pretty impressive these days. There are now hour-by-hour predictions for what the weather will be in an upcoming 48-hour period, including what time it will start raining, when the temperature will drop, and at what point the clouds will break to let the sun shine.

Sometimes this forecasting talent can be applied to predictions beyond weather. One such prediction is that certain at-risk immigrant kids in our state are about to receive legal protections due to the good work of King County Bar Association pro bono lawyers.

In the March issue of the Bar Bulletin we shared news about a planned volunteer attorney activity to support undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children. Our Pro Bono Services Committee was exploring ways that KCBA member attorneys could provide assistance to tens of thousands of expected applicants for status under President Obama's executive action on immigration relief for the undocumented.

We were proposing working in partnership with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to train volunteer attorneys in helping immigrant parents of U.S. citizens complete the application forms and remain in the U.S. with their families. The response was overwhelming, with more than 200 volunteers signing up to be part of this initiative. Implementation, however, is on hold while anti-immigration activists challenge the president's plans in court - likely all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court sometime next year. And as many know, it's far easier to predict the weather than a Supreme Court decision.

That said, while undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. citizens remain in limbo, I'm very proud to report that volunteer attorneys still have a separate opportunity to help undocumented and unaccompanied minor immigrant children with their immigration status.

Over the past two years, the United States has experienced a surge of more than 67,000 undocumented children who crossed the Mexican border alone without parents, compared to 15,000 annually in past years. Of the surge total, 15,000 from Mexico generally can be returned quickly; the rest - from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - cannot be held without a hearing for more than 72 hours. Since these cases can take years before that hearing, these children are placed in foster care across the country. Officials estimate there are more than 400 in Washington.

Many of these children have been abused, abandoned or neglected in their home countries and, because they are without legal immigration status, are in need of humanitarian protection. Through agencies such as NWIRP and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), these children may be able to receive "Special Immigrant Juvenile" status, which would allow them to immediately apply for lawful permanent resident status.

A child may not apply for this status without a court order from a juvenile or family law court. This is where the expertise of our Kinship Care Solutions Project comes into play. Volunteers who take on third-party custody actions in family court will be presenting evidence to the state court that will result in the findings necessary for NWIRP and KIND attorneys to use in application for this special status.

Formed in 2004, KCBA's Kinship Care Solutions Project represents low-income relative and non-relative caregivers in non-parental custody actions where children are at-risk in the care of their parents. A group of 54 new and experienced attorneys work in mentor relationships to provide pro bono legal services to 50 cases annually. New attorneys complete 3.5 hours of CLE training in kinship care law before being assigned to a case that may last anywhere from a few months to several years.

The current program has been staffed by a part-time KCBA staff attorney, Judy Lin, who as national leader in this area of law provides high-quality, volunteer training/mentoring/support to maintain our current annual caseload. With new funding provided by the Legal Foundation of Washington, Lin is now available to work full time, giving KCBA the option to apply her additional hours to expanding the existing program to include support for volunteer attorneys taking on kinship care cases for special juvenile immigrants.

We estimate, if new volunteers can be identified, this could allow KCBA to support up to 30 of these new cases at any one time. And once KCBA volunteer lawyers obtain family law protection for these children in state courts, NWIRP and KIND would continue working with them on their long-term immigration status.

KCBA is holding a training session for volunteer attorneys who wish to be a part of this effort on September 28. Some prior experience in family law is helpful. To learn more, please contact Judy Lin by email (judyl@kcba.org) or phone (206-267-7023).

My prediction is that we're in store for some very sunny and pleasant weather ahead for immigrant children in Washington.

Andrew Prazuch is KCBA's executive director. He can be reached by email (AndrewP@kcba.org) or phone (206-267-7061).

 

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