Community Foundation Supporting Legal Representation for Unaccompanied Minors

Latest Changemaker Project Offers Opportunity for Fundholders

April 15, 2016

The crush of unaccompanied children at the United States’ Southern border may seem like a far-away problem, but it’s impact is being felt across New Jersey. More than five thousand of these children – from places like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico that are facing pandemic violence – have come to New Jersey to stay with family or close friends and ultimately pick up the pieces of their lives. These children are not nameless faces, but rather boys and girls whose parents faced an impossible choice: send their children on a solitary journey across hundreds of miles to the United States, or risk their recruitment by a gang and/or likely murder.

Unaccompanied 1As Randi Mandelbaum, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Rutgers Child Advocacy Clinic, explains, “[these children] come here after traveling for months or weeks, often alone and on foot.”

When the Community Foundation of New Jersey’s Leadership Committee learned more about this issue, it immediately sought a way for fundholders to have a positive impact, especially on those children already in New Jersey. We’re pleased to share that opportunity and announce our own, major support of the initiative.

The Problem

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that almost 60% of the children arriving on the United States’ Southern border require international protection because they are refugees (i.e., fleeing violence and/or danger). Navigating immigration removal proceedings alone is nearly impossible for a child. The proceedings are conducted without regard to a child’s age or developmental stage, and are adversarial and legally complex. Children’s cases often involve initiating a separate proceeding in state Family Court in addition to proceedings in Immigration Court.

Whether an unaccompanied child has an attorney is the single most important factor influencing a case’s outcome. Some studies show that children represented by attorneys were 10 times more likely to be permitted to remain in the U.S. than children who lacked representation.

In New Jersey, the supply of free and low-cost attorneys available to represent these children is grossly inadequate. According to Mandelbaum, only ten to fifteen percent of the children who need an attorney are able to retain one.

The state as a whole has only five nonprofit immigration legal service providers who deliver free legal representation to children, three of which are law schools with limited capacity because law students cannot manage large caseloads. In fact, in 2014, there were only three attorneys and one part-time legal assistant throughout New Jersey who exclusively served immigrant children and youth free of charge. Additional resources are provided by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), which supports, through recruitment, training, and mentoring, pro bono representation by the private sector.

The Consortium

The New Jersey Consortium for Immigrant Children is a collaboration of advocates for children from nonprofit organizations and New Jersey’s law schools, with key law firm and corporate partners.

  • From the nonprofit sector: American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Casa Esperanza, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Newark, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), Legal Services of New Jersey, and the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
  • From academia: Rutgers Law School (Newark and Camden campuses), Seton Hall University School of Law Center for Social Justice.
  • From the private sector: Fragomen, Greenberg Traurig LLP; Lowenstein Sandler LLP; McCarter & English LLP; Proskauer Rose LLP; Wyndham Worldwide.

The Approach

The Consortium strives to build on existing infrastructure for representing unaccompanied children by increasing capacity in all three of the sectors currently providing free legal representation to unaccompanied children: nonprofit immigrant rights organizations; New Jersey’s law schools, particularly their clinical programs; and the private bar.

Unaccompanied 2.2By enhancing existing infrastructure, the Consortium hopes to more than double the number of children who will be represented and to lay the foundation for a sustained expansion of our collective capacity to effectively represent these children in the future.

In short, the Consortium aims to:

  • Increase the amount of high quality direct representation of immigrant children
  • Support and mentor pro bono participation by the private bar, which in turn will increase the number of pro bono attorneys able and willing to represent immigrant children
  • Initiate advocacy and policy work to effectuate systematic change

The Community Foundation’s Role

The Leadership Committee of the Community Foundation of New Jersey has granted $45,000 to pay for roughly half of the salary and benefits of a supporting attorney, hired through the Rutgers Child Advocacy Clinic, who will coordinate work with and provide much-needed family law expertise to pro bono attorneys who represent these young people in court.

The Consortium, with the help of the Rutgers Child Advocacy Clinic (which includes law students, some staff, and a roster of private attorneys) has represented some 250 children per year. The goal is to represent at least another 100 clients annually with the help of a full-time person.

“We are so grateful to the Community Foundation for helping us in our efforts to provide increased representation to undocumented immigrant children in New Jersey,” said Mandelbaum. “The need is huge.”

The Opportunity

Even with this increase in representation, and with additional support from KIND, the American Friend Service Committee and others, the Consortium is still barely representing 15 percent of need.

Donors across New Jersey, whether they are fundholders at the Community Foundation or not, are invited to support this important work and ensure that more unaccompanied children in New Jersey have the legal representation they need to properly navigate an otherwise impossible process to secure their safety.

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The Stories

The following stories come from the Rutgers Child Advocacy Clinic and help drive home the importance of the Consortium’s work.

Unaccompanied 2.1Yessenia, age 17, was born into a home in Central America marked by violence. Her father regularly abused her mother, and Yessenia and her siblings witnessed much of the violence. Yessenia was also a victim of her father’s attacks. After years in the relationship, Yessenia’s mother finally escaped to the United States, entrusting Yessenia to a relative. Yessenia’s father’s violence continued. After he punched her and hit her with a machete while she was pregnant, Yessenia fled to the United States to be with her mother. In the U.S., Yessenia gave birth to her daughter in a shelter for children who came to the U.S. alone. Yessenia was reunited with her mother and now resides safely in New Jersey. Through representation by a nonprofit member of the Consortium, Yessenia obtained an immigration status designed to protect abused, abandoned and neglected children. She is now protected from deportation back to her abusive father and is working to support her daughter.

Nayeli, age 15, is from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the highest murder rate in the world. When she was 14, the leader of a violent gang kidnapped and raped her older sister on several occasions. Nayeli was present when her sister was kidnapped from the home and each time feared that her sister would never return. The gang leader continued stalking Nayeli’s sister, and threatened to rape Nayeli because her older sister sought to avoid his attacks. Shortly thereafter, gang members began to follow Nayeli when she appeared in public. Nayeli was especially scared of the gang members because they had grabbed girls her age off the street and raped them. Nayeli and her sister fled to the U.S. together. A Consortium partner firm secured asylum for her in 2015. Nayeli now lives safely with her sister in New Jersey.

Pedro, a boy from Honduras, lost his mother when he was twelve, at which time his father sent him to work in construction. Pedro suffered regular violent beatings by his father, including one in which his father hanged him by his neck with a rope until he passed out. At sixteen, he fled to join his older brother in the United States. With the assistance of a Consortium member law school, Pedro obtained Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and then lawful permanent residency. He continues to live with his brother in Trenton, where he is enrolled in high school.

To learn more about this effort, please contact Margarethe Laurenzi at 973-267-5533 or