Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, spoke about her organization’s work in assisting children in immigration court and the difference between how the Obama and Trump administrations have responded to the recent migrant crisis at a lecture on Thursday.
“Because deportation proceedings are civil in nature — they’re not criminal proceedings — there is no right to appointed council within the system,” Young explained. “And I have been in an immigration court and seen a five-year-old appear before an immigration judge.”
KIND provides pro bono services to children who face immigration courts on their own. Since 2009, KIND has represented over 50,000 children and has won 98 percent of its cases. Lawyers from major law firms, law schools and bar associations provide the free legal services, according to Young.
Young said that KIND aims to determine why child immigrants “are coming to the United States and whether they have a basis to remain here” as well as assist them in immigration courts or safely return them to their native country if it is deemed safe.
She stressed that KIND did not advocate for the right of an immigrant child to stay in the country, but said that “every child should have the ability to share their story.”
Immigrant children have fled violence in the “triangle nations” of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and many children have not seen their families in years and may suffer trauma from reuniting with new parents and siblings, according to Young.
Young said there were approximately 140 children “arriving at our border” per day. During the the migration crisis in 2014, 68,000 children arrived in the United States and 38,000 children have arrived each year since then. The children are held in detention centers until they are processed.
Young stressed that the child immigration issue is less about “irregular immigration” and more about the “refugee problem in South America.”
Young said the Obama administration encouraged Congress to solve the South American migration problem by providing funds to the triangle nations “in the form of foreign aid with the focus on human development programs.”
The administration invested in KIND and 40 other organizations that provide pro bono legal counseling during the migration crisis, Young said. Investing in the triangle nations would mitigate violence and therefore allow families to stay in their country of origin, she added.
Young also addressed the current American response to child migration, saying that migrant children are “painted” as “kids we should be afraid of” and portrayed as “a risk” to the U.S. border and communities in the country under the Trump administration.
“What we see happening is all of that slow, and very careful progress dating back to the late 1990s is starting to get turned on its head … and legislation, policies, regulations that were put in place … are starting to get turned on their head and used for law enforcement purposes,” Young said.
According to Young, it is now important to “get back to the time period in which people can have a rational discussion around immigration policy.”
Young has a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and joint law degree and master’s degree in international relations from American University. She has served as Chief Counsel on Immigration Policy in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Refugees for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, according to the KIND website.
She encouraged law students to “speak up and advocate for the kids” and participate in organizations like KIND that provide pro bono services.
“We have to start speaking up and turn this around,” she said.