Join Our List
Giving immigrants help in KIND: Group connects lawyers with kids and helps both through legal system
- Sunday, November 28, 2010
- Written by Susan Carroll
Inside a conference room in the towering Marathon Oil building near the Galleria, a 17-year-old boy from El Salvador smiled demurely at the two lawyers grilling him about his grades.
He's doing very well this semester, he insisted, earning A's and B's across the board in his Pasadena high school classes. Except, he admitted with a slight grimace, algebra.
On one side of the conference table sat Victoria Mora, a 31-year-old pro bono coordinator with Kids In Need of Defense, a national nonprofit that helps pair pro bono attorneys with unaccompanied immigrant children in the U.S. Across from her sat, Luecretia Dillard, a seasoned attorney with Marathon Oil, who had never taken on an immigration case until she met the young man at the head of the table.
The two attorneys, with help from others with KIND, had helped to shepherd the teenager through the complex U.S. immigration system and were preparing for a final hearing before a judge in January. Asked about his odds of winning his immigration case, the boy grew quiet.
"I'm a little afraid," said the teenager, who requested to remain anonymous, saying he fled gang violence in El Salvador, where the notorious MS-13 dominated his small town of La Union, El Carmen.
Thousands in need
Each year, about 7,000 to 9,500 illegal immigrant children and teenagers are detained crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally without immediate family members. Although many are returned to the care of relatives in their home countries, thousands end up in U.S. immigration courts without attorneys to represent them or parents to support them.
In January 2009, the Microsoft Corporation and actress Angelina Jolie founded KIND, which aims to provide legal representation for 100 percent of unaccompanied children in the areas of the country where the need is greatest, including Houston, by the end of 2010.
Wendy Young, KIND's executive director, said the organization has helped some 2,200 children and teenagers nationally, including 220 in Houston. But, she said, the need is much greater, particularly in Texas, which is home to the largest number of unaccompanied immigrant children shelters in the country.
"The cases are just pouring through our doors," Young said.
Help for kids and lawyers
KIND helps connect immigrant children with pro-bono attorneys who may not specialize in immigration law but are willing to take the cases for free, Young said. KIND's attorneys help mentor the volunteers, providing expertise on immigration-related issues and other services, such as translation.
Dillard, who took on the El Salvadoran boy's case in the spring of 2009, said she read an e-mail from a KIND coordinator describing his situation "and it just broke my heart." The boy was 15 when he was placed in the Conroe shelter and said he has no memory of his mother or father. He had an aunt in Houston, a legal immigrant, who offered to take him in, but he could not legally stay in the U.S. without help.
So Dillard, with aid from KIND, started the complex process of applying on the boy's behalf for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which requires a certification from a Texas court that a child has been abused, abandoned or neglected. With a decree from the Texas court, Dillard said she is now preparing for his federal immigration hearing.
She said she would be "a fish out of water" without help from Mora, the pro bono coordinator for KIND.
On Tuesday morning, after being questioned about his grades, the teenager thanked the two lawyers for their help, saying he feels safe with them. As a kind of afterthought, he jokingly asked Dillard if she'd ever lost a case.
She smiled, and told him she's never lost an immigration one.
Communications and Advocacy Director
"These children often have nothing; no money, no support and no family, yet they come to America seeking its promises of a better life."