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How Philanthropy Can Help Unaccompanied Child Refugees Now

August 13, 2014

Headshot_daranee_petsodTen-year-old Lucinda sits alone in a courtroom awaiting her fate. In front of her is a judge who will decide whether she is deported to her native Honduras. At the opposite table sits an experienced attorney advocating for her deportation. Her case will be argued in English, a language she does not speak. No one sits beside her.

Lucinda does not have an attorney. She does not have anyone to testify to the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her caregiver in Honduras, or to the psychological impact of that trauma and the ordeal she endured during her perilous journey to the United States. She has no expert witness to describe the non-existent child protection system or the rampant violence against women and girls in her home country. The burden of proof for her asylum claim rests entirely on her ten-year-old shoulders.

Driven by violence in Central America and Mexico, an increasing number of children like Lucinda are seeking refuge in the United States. Between 80,000 and 120,000 children are expected to arrive in 2014 alone, up from 6,000 in 2011. A growing number of these new arrivals are children fleeing some of the world’s most dangerous countries — the murder rates in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador rank among the highest in the world; these are countries where it is not uncommon for gang violence to claim even the youngest lives. Many of these children have endured unspeakable forms of trauma on their journey north, and in immigration courts across the country, thousands of them — some as young as four and five — are appearing without legal representation.

A recent study found that nine out of ten children who appear in immigration court without representation will be deported. In contrast, nearly half of all children with representation are granted humanitarian relief of some kind. This gap in outcomes, combined with demand that far outstrips existing capacity, highlights the need to bolster legal resources and representation for unaccompanied children crossing the border. Indeed, more support is needed at three stages of their respective journeys: at the border itself, while children are in federal custody, and in communities where minors are released to parents or guardians as they await their asylum hearings.

Philanthropy can make an immediate difference for unaccompanied immigrant children by doing more to support nonprofit legal service providers and the recruitment of pro bono attorneys, experts able to provide medical and country-condition evidence that supports asylum claims, and qualified interpreters. In addition, funders should consider support for expanded access to independent child advocates to ensure that the system takes into consideration the “best interest” of children facing deportation, as well as training for immigration judges and asylum officers in line to decide unaccompanied immigrant children’s cases.

Funders can also support wraparound health and social services both during custody but especially after release, where few resources are available. Given that many children have experienced violence, sexual assault, and other forms of trauma in their home countries or on their long journeys to the U.S., culturally appropriate mental health and trauma services are especially vital.

While meeting children’s needs is paramount, funding communications and advocacy efforts is also critical. Polling, messaging, and multimedia education campaigns can help shift public opinion, while advocacy can improve policies and practices that affect the treatment of children, from their apprehension to detention to adjudication. Both are also important as a means to ensure that this humanitarian crisis does not undermine efforts to reform our nation’s antiquated immigration system.

Compelled by the gravity of the crisis, foundations with different funding priorities have begun to respond. The New York City-based Robin Hood Foundation has made a $1.3 million grant to the Immigrant Justice Corps to fund forty fellowships for recent law school and college graduates interested in providing legal representation to indigent immigrants and their families. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation has allocated $1.33 million for emergency legal services as well as longer-term infrastructure building.

The California Endowment and Univision Communications, Inc. will embark on a campaign to raise funds to provide care and protection for these children. Univision will promote the campaign to its viewers, encouraging them to contribute by text, phone, or online. The California Endowment will contribute a catalytic grant of $500,000 to encourage other foundations to participate in an immediate, coordinated, and informed response to the crisis. The James Irvine Foundation ($300,000) and the Marguerite Casey Foundation ($50,000) have pledged support toward this campaign. Elsewhere in California, one of the top states where children have been placed post-custody, the California Community Foundation, which serves Los Angeles County, has launched a complementary effort, the Our Children Relief Fund, to address the need for shelter, health services, social services, and legal representation.

Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees has been working closely with these and other foundations across the country to develop a thoughtful and robust response to the crisis at the border. As the crisis evolves, foundations can look to GCIR for information, technical assistance, and other resources to inform their grantmaking. The needs are urgent and multifaceted — from legal services and medical care to interpreters and messaging campaigns. Grantmakers, regardless of their funding priorities, have a role to play in supporting these children — and the communities in which they settle — and putting them on the road to a better future. The time to act is now.

Daranee Petsod is president of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, a membership organization of foundations working on a range of issues, including education, health, employment, civic participation, racial and economic justice, and other issues of concern to immigrant children, youth, and families.

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