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Charlotte attorneys aid unaccompanied immigrant kids

The tide of unaccompanied Central American children pouring across the U.S. border has slowed by nearly 40 percent since October, but as many as 1,100 are expected to be in Mecklenburg County by the end of this year.

Many of the children land in Charlotte because there is a U.S. Immigration Court here. Their future in America remains both complex and uncertain.

Some call for sending the children back to their countries, as part of the effort to stop a flood of illegal immigration. But advocates for the children predict they could end up killed if they are deported to Central American countries with some of the world’s highest murder rates.

It’s with that concern in mind that attorneys in Charlotte and nearly 50 other U.S. cities have launched legal services initiatives aimed at helping the children understand their rights in immigration court proceedings and make their pleas for legal status.

Charlotte’s initiative is called The Safe Child Immigrant Project and financial backers include the Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Works as well as local organizations including the Leon Levine Foundation and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Community Foundation, an affiliate and grant-making arm of Foundation For The Carolinas.

Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont is coordinating the effort, which has so far hired three AmeriCorps attorneys to handle the cases of Central American children age 15 or younger who recently arrived at the border without a parent or guardian.

Organizers say most of the cases typically involve children with a limited grasp of reading and writing, and very few speak English.

“Because of their age, these children don’t have the competency to understand the consequences of their decisions,” said Mark Bowers, a staff attorney with Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont.

“Even if a child qualifies for relief, imagine what it’s like for them to walk into a court and do it on their own. This is about getting them through the system in a way ... that doesn’t defy notions of basic human decency.”

The three attorneys hired for the program will take at least 50 cases each at a time. In addition, Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont has matched 71 other unaccompanied immigrant children with attorneys who are working their cases pro bono.

Kenneth Schorr, executive director of Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont, says some cases involve state court proceedings while others will be in federal court.

Schorr notes the Safe Immigrant Child Project needs to raise $225,000 annually for three years to cover employee benefits and other legal services costs. Equal Justice and AmeriCorps have pledged to give $123,000 a year for three years.

“This effort has been a big success because it’s a very sympathetic situation,” Schorr said. “These children are truly escaping from awful violence. Not just poverty and deprivation, but real danger and violence and a lot of them have stories that include the murder of family members.”

An estimated 10 percent to 12 percent of the 52,000-plus children who have crossed the U.S. border in the last fiscal year will be eligible for the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status that would allow them to stay.

Statistics provided by Legal Services shows 2,064 Central American children who crossed the border last year ended up in North Carolina, and an additional 144 have come to the state in 2015.

Of that 2,064, it’s believed 683 came to Mecklenburg County where they were placed with parents, relatives or other guardians who were already living in the community. Sponsors do not have to be legally documented immigrants, officials say.

If the current rates hold, an additional 30,000 to 40,000 children will enter the country in 2015, which could translate to 1,200 in North Carolina, experts say.

Schorr admits being a little surprised that local groups such as the Leon Levine Foundation stepped up to help, given the political firestorm that has surrounded the crisis.

“I thought it might be a little edgy,” Schorr said. “But I think both the Foundation for the Carolinas and the Levine Foundation care about children and this resonated with them. Not everybody we asked (for money) has decided to participate.”

Tom Lawrence of the Leon Levine Foundation said the foundation gave $25,000 to The Safe Child Immigrant Project because it is focused on children in crisis.

“There are thousands of children who enter the United States (each year), but the nuance here is that these immigrant children were abused, abandoned or are fleeing violence, gangs or sex trafficking,” Lawrence said.

“The majority of these children will be deported back to that terrible situation without the proper help. And in this case, the proper help is legal representation from an attorney.”