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Matt Han / Gavel Media

"Advocating for Unaccompanied Children": An Immigrant and Attorney Discuss their Experiences at the Border

The Center for Human Rights and International Justice hosted a webinar entitled, "Advocating for Unaccompanied Children at the US Southern Border," on Thursday, October 1, featuring Yliana Johansen-Mendez, an immigration attorney and alumna of the Boston College Law School, and Ibrahim Haruna, a former client of Johansen-Mendez who immigrated from Ghana at age 14. 

The event detailed the mission of Johansen-Mendez’s nonprofit legal team, Immigrant Defenders Law Center. ImmDef, as Johansen-Mendez referred to it, is based in Los Angeles, but serves young immigrants and families throughout Southern California. 

ImmDef’s primary goal is to provide legal counsel to unaccompanied minors as well as adults with special needs after they have been apprehended at the border, but they recently were able to expand their services to family cases as well. Johansen-Mendez went over the different services in more detail, explaining that the group is involved with applications for immigrant juvenile status and asylum along with providing removal defense services.

Such services are not guaranteed under the law, meaning that oftentimes minors are forced to defend themselves in court, regardless of age. ImmDef reports that when unrepresented, children are deported in 80% of cases.

In order to combat this, the organization takes more than 700 cases per year while operating on grants from the government and donations. However, ImmDef’s current grant, which was created under the Obama administration, is set to expire soon and could face changes under the current administration. 

According to Johansen-Mendez, certain Trump-era policies have already had an effect on the process of defending these children in court. New rules mean that children crossing the border alone, even those who have proven asylum or neglect, are forced to wait up to six years to apply for permanent residency. In addition, judges are pushed to complete more cases in a shorter period of time, given 60-day deadlines for detainee cases even though this is not enough time for the child’s visa application to be processed.

Those who are able to complete applications through US Citizenship and Immigration Services still often face procedural hurdles, such as rejecting the applications due to a blank “Middle Name” field, even if the child does not have a middle name. Other policies directed at these migrants include movement into an ICE detention center on the morning of one’s 18th birthday, or the requirement that children seeking asylum testify about the abuse, violence, or other “horrific memories” they have, as Johansen-Mendez put it. 

Johansen-Mendez also explained the ways in which immigration is more difficult for Black migrants. Hailing mostly from the Caribbean, they are at greater risk for deportation and are six times more likely than non-Black migrants to end up in solitary confinement. She mentioned that they also face higher bonds—the total average is $10,500, while the average for Haitians is $16,170. 

Johansen-Mendez finished her contribution by explaining how the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation at the border, resulting in over 6,000 cases in ICE detainees since February, with around 200 of said cases in children.

ICE is also using the pandemic as a reason to expel any new immigrants, regardless of medical vulnerability. Johansen-Mendez said ImmDef noticed in March that very few children were entering Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities. Upon further inspection, they realized ICE was holding minors and families in hotels near the border and sending them back to Mexico on planes, all without due process.

Johansen-Mendez was followed by speaker Ibrahim Haruna. Haruna told the harrowing story of his journey to the US at age 14, which began when he decided to leave behind poverty and family issues and stowed away in a cargo ship. Aboard the ship, he laid in a container for two and a half months, and was fed “time to time,” in his words, by the man who helped him board.

Upon disembarking in Colombia, Haruna attempted to find help with the immigration services there, but they turned him away several times and eventually threatened to imprison him if he did not leave the country. Thus he moved north into Panama, which involved a dangerous journey through the Darien Gap, a jungle with little development or resources that migrant caravans must navigate.

Haruna detailed the difficulties of this experience; he slept outside each night, was given a single meal daily, and had his few belongings stolen from him. During his time in the jungle, he encountered a man at a military camp who convinced him it would be easier to migrate if he lied about his age and name when the military took his fingerprints. 

Unfortunately, this decision later complicated Haruna’s process of entry into the United States. After an outstanding act of kindness from a woman in Mexico who bought him a plane ticket to Tijuana, Ibrahim arrived at the border and was detained in ICE custody. He recalled that during the three days he was held, his cell was a “refrigerator room,” and he was given no blanket and only one meal per day.

Haruna was then taken into an ORR shelter, but because he had claimed he was over 18 when fingerprinted in Panama, his case became very complicated. He and Johansen-Mendez recalled the bone density and dental examinations he received in order to prove that he was only 14, not 18 years old. Johansen-Mendez added that the trial attorney for Haruna’s case was exceptionally aggressive and dragged the process out, resulting in a two-hour testimony from Haruna, which is unheard of in child cases. 

Now, Haruna is a student at a California community college and works as an EMT while living with a foster family after the team at ImmDef was able to win his case. He and Johansen-Mendez opened up for questions, in which he explained his larger goal of becoming a firefighter. When asked why his ICE detention cell was kept at such a cold temperature, Haruna was unsure. Johansen-Mendez added that this was not unique to his case, and due to the prevalence of these “refrigerator rooms,” she is forced to assume that it is done “to be cruel.” 

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