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Attorney volunteers to help children avoid deportation

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Corporate attorney Emma Mata donates her time by providing legal help to unaccompanied, undocumented minors facing deportation. (Photo/Courtesy of Seyfarth Shaw LLP).

Emma mataEmma Mata is a Houston-based commercial litigation attorney and a mother of two young children. Yet this successful Latina is giving back to her community by providing legal assistance to undocumented child immigrants without parents who are facing possible deportation.

"As a mother and an attorney, anything having to do with children was the kind of legal volunteer work I wanted to do," says Mata, who donates her time as an attorney for the organization Kids in Need of Defense, known as KIND. "There are plenty of children here in Texas who can use our help," she adds.

The kind of legal help attorneys like Mata are doing through KIND is especially important now. U.S. officials and non-profit agencies are seeing a huge rise - a 93 percent increase - in the number of children crossing the US border without a parent or a guardian. Over five thousand unaccompanied children and teens have crossed the border since October of last year. They are coming mainly from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico.

In fact, last week was the first time the Department of Defense had to house a few hundred undocumented children and teens at Lackland Air Force Base. At a recent Washington, D.C. conference on unaccompanied minors, Guatemala's First Lady, Rosa Maria Leal de Pérez, said her country had repatriated 6,000 children who had been sent from the U.S. back to Guatemala last year.

What organizations like KIND attempt to do is to help many of these teens and children avoid deportation. Some children, explains KIND's Megan McKenna, have no relatives left in their country of origin, or are escaping life-threatening situations like domestic violence or gang violence.

In the case of Houston attorney Mata, "I recently helped three children, ages 8, 9 and 11, whose parents had died and were sent by their ill grandmother in El Salvador to come live with their aunt in the US," she explains.

Though these children were lucky in that they had a caring aunt who took them as her own, the children still faced deportation, since they came here illegally. The aunt contacted KIND, and Mata and several attorneys were able to prove the children literally had no one to care for them back in their own town, which is also a region with serious gang violence. After many months of legal work from Mata and other KIND volunteers, the children were granted residency status.

"If they didn't have an attorney, I don't think the family could have gone through the process successfully," says Mata. "It is very hard to navigate the immigration process, and many children or their caretakers if they have them do not understand English well."

KIND does not just help young children, but young adults like Jorge (not his real name), who currently lives in California. Jorge was a studious young man in Guatemala, who had helped a cousin whose husband had been killed. Jorge was then targeted by the killers. He survived a shooting, but he knew he was marked. He came to the U.S., "since I would have been killed if I stayed in my town."

Leaving was hard. "My parents have aged years and gotten ill since I left," Jorge says. But through another attorney from KIND, Jorge obtained residency, learned English, and is now working and studying.

"If it weren't for KIND, I honestly would probably have been deported, and I would probably be dead," says a grateful Jorge, who hopes to open a center one day to help immigrants such as himself. "I don't know what I would have done without them."

KIND works with over 60 law firms, and counts the Hispanic National Bar Association as an official partner. With over 8,000 children unaccompanied undocumented children coming into the U.S. every year, KIND's Megan McKenna says they are always looking for volunteers to help. In fact, KIND's role does not stop at the US border.

"There are many children who do have to go back," explains KIND's Megan McKenna. For those children and teens, KIND has a pilot program in Guatemala with a social worker on staff trying to determine a child's situation upon his or her return. "We try to partner with four NGOs in Guatemala to provide what a child needs, like shelter, and medical care."

Attorneys like Emma Mata say being able to help a child or teen stay in this country and live a safe, productive life is the best reward of all.

"I love being able to help these children," Mata says. "As a mother, I can't even imagine what they have gone through."

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