October 22nd, 2009
04:27 PM ET

'How do you turn your back on representing a helpless child?'

Michelle Abarca
Attorney, Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center
Children's Legal Project

In a time of heated debates about health care, foreclosure, the recession and immigration, it is easy to ignore another sad story. But just one look at the stories we at Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) hear every day puts it all back in perspective.

FIAC champions the rights of immigrants who have few resources and tremendous challenges – unaccompanied children in immigration detention like “Marta,” victims of domestic violence or human trafficking and asylum seekers. Many of our staff are themselves immigrants; 90 percent speak at least two languages.

FIAC is one of the few agencies in the country that provides free representation to immigrant children who enter this country alone each year.

“Marta” is one of these children and is featured in CNN’s Latino in America. Her father abandoned her and later died. When Marta was 7, her mother came to the United States, leaving her behind. Longing to see her mother, Marta left Central America at age 13 and set off for the United States. The journey was grueling.

Reuniting with her mother was not what Marta imagined and she was still in harm’s way. Ultimately she ended up in Department of Homeland Security (DHS) custody at Boystown, a shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children in Miami. Over 7,000 unaccompanied children a year land in immigration custody. FIAC represents about 400 of these children each year; I represent Marta.

Like adults, children flee war and political upheaval. Others live on the streets because their families abused, abandoned or neglected them. Still others are victims of trafficking and have been smuggled into the United States for forced labor or prostitution.

Most of them encounter more traumas along the journey. More than 70 percent report being robbed, extorted, intimidated or abused physically or sexually during their trek.

They are typically picked up at the border by DHS and quickly deported back to their homelands. They are too often cast out without regard for what danger - abusive parents, persecution by gangs, life on the streets - might await back home.

Children in immigration custody are not entitled to a free attorney and pro bono attorneys with the required expertise are in short supply. Most of these children don’t have attorneys to guide them through a complex and frightening legal system.

Because Marta has a lawyer, things turned out well for her. A juvenile court judge determined that she had been abandoned, abused or neglected and granted her an immigrant juvenile visa which puts her on the path to permanent residency. She is a bright, 16-year-old high school student who hopes to become a journalist. She speaks English, excels in math and is on the soccer team. But more importantly, she is a survivor who dares to dream.

But as I write this article, we at FIAC are in danger of delivering even fewer legal services to vulnerable children like Marta. Our organization faces a serious shortfall because we are dependent on grants and donations in a bad economy.

In these difficult financial times, helping vulnerable children can be a daunting task. I think of the budget cuts we face and the difficult decisions our agency must make. When we downsize we not only face losing dedicated public interest lawyers but we also are forced to decline help to children who have nowhere else to turn. How do you turn your back on representing a helpless child?

I am a Latina, and a legal immigrant. I was forced to leave my country at the age of five due to political unrest. I know very well what it feels like to be a foreigner in a strange land, the overwhelming feeling of having to start all over again in a new country. But I also know how it feels to be embraced by a country, to be appreciated, to just be given a chance to dream.

As someone with great respect for this country and maybe a bit of a dreamer like Marta, my hope is that in the near future children like her will have the right to a free attorney so they at least have a fighting chance to win their case. It’s the American way. I came to this country because of its fairness and generosity. And until our government sees fit to do that, we must step forward as compassionate citizens and fund the work done by organizations like mine, so toddlers are not being placed in front of a judge on their own.

We need to treat these children with dignity and respect, see past the prejudices and the fear of those who are different, and embrace the unique potential that these young children offer us. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Editor’s Note: Michelle Abarca is an attorney with Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center and co-project director of the Children's Legal Project. She represents detained and non-detained immigrant children before the immigration courts and the Department of Homeland Security. She is a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michelle Abarca.

Filed under: CNN Latino in America • Immigration
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Ivan Sanchez

    @ Amazing and Mike... I can sense the overwhelming compassion coming through your posts. It's nice to see that you both believe children deserve less than our compassion and help. At Michelle, please keep the fight alive and reach out to me if there is ever anything I can do to assist. Author, Ivan Sanchez

    October 22, 2009 at 7:32 pm |
  2. Mike, formerly from Syracuse, NY

    What part of 'illegal' isn't clear. Not only should illegals not have the 'right' to an attorney, they should be deported by the quickest means possible. This country was built on immigrants, the vast majority of whom entered legally after waiting their turn.

    October 22, 2009 at 7:00 pm |
  3. Tim Gibson

    There is nothing wrong with LEGAL immigration.

    October 22, 2009 at 4:22 pm |
  4. GF, Los Angeles

    My parents left their country due to political unrest as well. They did it legally and I expect all others who wish to live in America to do so as well. Marta's story is sad but we in America can no longer afford to care for others who aren't citizens of this country any longer. I don't blame people like Marta for wanting to come to this country but we cannot make exceptions. This country is drowning and we are out of life preservers.

    October 22, 2009 at 3:38 pm |
  5. Amazing

    Cry me a river. Sorry, I cannot afford to support every needy illegal around. There are charities for that purpose, not government.

    October 22, 2009 at 3:26 pm |
  6. C.K. in Colorado

    Ask God for help.

    October 22, 2009 at 3:24 pm |
  7. Monica Kumar - CA

    Bravo Michelle! I love your story. It is sad and uplifting at the same time. I hope that some day we will treat each other with the respect and dignity every human being deserves, regardless of the piece of land that seems to define us today.

    October 22, 2009 at 2:21 pm |
  8. Mike in NYC

    The main point of this story is that both of the girls' parents abandoned her.

    US citizens are not responsible for rectifying this unfortunate lapse in Hispanic family values.

    October 22, 2009 at 1:53 pm |
  9. alex lyrics

    You don't, we need to help all in need.

    the major problem with society today is we don't help others in need

    October 22, 2009 at 1:30 pm |