Editor’s Note: The Advocates for Human Rights works with hundreds of refugees seeking asylum. In this post, Courtnie Gore, the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow in our Refugee and Immigrant Program, reflects on five challenges and tips she has learned in her first year of working with 34 clients who are unaccompanied minors.
- Establishing trust. In a first meeting with a child, I have to remember that this child has met a lot of “me’s.” That is to say, they have sat across a table from a stranger who asks very invasive questions. They are scared and don’t trust me. So, my initial approach is just to relate to them. I ask them to draw a picture of their home in the country they came from. This allows the child not to think about the painful circumstances that brought them into my office. I have them describe everything in the picture. They beam up with pride when they talk about the fruit in front of their house, their neighbors, or pets they’ve left behind. From that point on, we can talk more about their time in their home country–the good, the bad, and the persecution.
- Understanding their immediate situation. While the child needs to be able to share their story with us, we also have to realize there’s a lot they might lack in their day-to-day lives. It’s important to understand what is going on in their current home and whether their basic needs are being met. Unaccompanied minors often have a strong sense of loyalty to whomever takes them into their home here in the U.S. Thus, they may be hesitant to share details that would paint a relative or guardian in a bad light. Some undocumented guardians may have concerns about going to court or taking the minor to get his or her fingerprints taken. It’s important to address these concerns so you and the client can focus on the case.
- Listening deeply. A child doesn’t tell a linear story. That means we have to do a lot of piecing the puzzle together. A child may tell you their relative raped them. What they won’t tell you is that their grandmother often left them alone with the uncle, who is a known drunk and abuser. It’s important to confirm events and put the stories in chronological order. Putting all the pieces of the puzzle together is essential.
- Practicing for the asylum interview. This is one of the most challenging parts of the interview prep process. The asylum interview is a whole different ballgame–it’s like starting at square one. The child will be sitting across the desk from yet another stranger. At that point we have to make sure they are not vague, shy, or prone to retract back to how they were when they first came to our office. We have to prepare the child-client for the worst. Asylum officers have asked questions like, “Did your parents pay for you to come here?” to “Why didn’t you live with another relative?” in domestic abuse cases. You have to prepare the child for whatever might come.
- Coming to closure. The asylum interview could possibly be the last time you see a client. Some clients are okay with that. However, some are left feeling extremely vulnerable. It is important to follow up with them to see what additional referrals or needs they might have, such as medical attention, therapy, or other resources.
In September, I was thrilled to learn that my first client, an 11-year-old boy from Guatemala, was granted asylum. That day, I discovered that representing unaccompanied minors is as rewarding as it is challenging.
By Courtnie Gore, Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow at The Advocates for Human Rights