This post is the third in a series that delves into the plight of the Central American children and families fleeing violence in Central America. The series will examine the historical context of the crisis, challenges that refugees face, international human rights obligations, and costs of a response.
Several weeks ago Jon Stewart joked that it seemed entirely reasonable for unaccompanied minors to traverse the complex network of the United States asylum process without legal representation. Stewart began rambling off forms N-400, I-130, and I-140 (none of which will grant you asylum) as routes to obtain different immigration statuses. Stewart quipped, “If they didn’t fill out the forms, can’t we just deport them?” And to the heartless adults willing to ask that question, I say, “Try doing it yourself.”
For the past three months I have worked as an intern at the Advocates of Human Rights assisting with “barebones” asylum applications. The applications I file are nowhere near complete. They lack sufficient country reports, affidavits, and other evidence necessary to make a compelling asylum case. It is simply a means to ensure that the client meets their one-year filing deadline. Even though these applications are far from complete, the shortest one I have assembled has been just shy of three hundred pages. Assembling an asylum application is more than just filling out some biographical information and mailing it to the Nebraska Service Center. It is more comparable to writing a casebook than filing a 1040ez.
Prior to July, most of my clients were former attorneys, scientists, and financial advisors; highly sophisticated individuals who still needed legal assistance to ensure all of the paperwork was properly filed. The first child I assisted, I approached in exactly the same manner as all of my other clients. I began with an explanation of the legal process and what the child could expect. I used acronyms for agencies, jargon for grounds, and form numbers instead of explanations. Forty-five minutes into the conversation, the child sheepishly told the interpreter, “No entiendo.”
I was at a loss for words. I tried using simpler terms, but was unable to condense a multi-year, multi-agency process into child-friendly concepts. I had become so immersed in the bureaucratic nature of the United States immigration system that it had become second nature to me. In the end, I do not think he ever fully understood what it is that he filed. To him, it was just a chance that he may be able to stay in the United States.
To think that people are telling kids to “just fill out the forms” — in a language that they do not understand, for a form of relief they do not understand —, is ludicrous. I am ashamed to watch our country respond to a refugee crisis by telling kids too young to reach the kitchen cabinets to engage in years of complex litigation without the assistance of an attorney.
Over the course of this summer, I have never once met an asylum seeker who I felt would not be harmed returning to their country. I have sat in interviews listening to people tell me about being tortured, raped, and abused. These people are stronger than anyone I have ever met. It takes a lot more strength and integrity to endure beatings, ride on top of trains, and finally admit that you need help than it does to stand at our border and shout, “Not our kids, not our problem.”
By: Nick Bednar, entering his second year at the University of Minnesota Law School, has worked as a summer intern at The Advocates for Human Rights. He graduated with from the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and from Hopkins High School.
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