The West

Government denies attorneys to immigrant kids at California shelter — ‘We need answers’

Rep. Harder presses ORR on legal services update for children in Modesto’s UAC program

Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) is pressing the Office of Refugee Resettlement for an update on the legal services being provided to children and babies in Modesto's Unaccompanied Alien Children program.
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Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.) is pressing the Office of Refugee Resettlement for an update on the legal services being provided to children and babies in Modesto's Unaccompanied Alien Children program.

The federal government is denying legal assistance to child migrants living at a Modesto shelter, according to advocates who worry the kids will suffer unnecessarily without access to attorneys.

Complaints about the site, which has been open for less than two months, reached Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, who on Tuesday sent a letter to the Trump administration asking questions about services there.

The migrants in the Modesto facility are pregnant teens, teen mothers and their children, with ages ranging from toddlers to teenagers. It houses up to a dozen migrants at a time and has been operating for about two months. It is currently housing six immigrant children.

“The Trump Administration needs to guarantee these kids have the help they’re legally entitled to,” Harder said. “Local organizations have done the best they can in filling in the gaps, but that’s not their job – it’s up to the federal government to fix this. We need answers.”

Migrant shelters are required by law to make attorneys available and Congress recently allocated $100 million for immigration-related services including legal assistance for child immigrants.

“Thinking of anyone going to an immigration hearing without an attorney, let alone a child, is totally absurd,” said Jennifer Podkul, interim vice president for policy at Kids in Need of Defense, which offers bro bono help to the children in the Modesto facility and has contracted with the government at other migrant detention facilities.

The immigrants in Modesto wind up there after they’ve been detained at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. The immigration agency must release children from detention facilities within three weeks, but officials can transfer them to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

That department hires local childcare facilities, such as the one in Modesto, to house the unaccompanied child migrants for longer periods.

The refugee resettlement office said it would not be able to comment by press time in response to McClatchy’s questions.

A spokesperson for Bethany Christian Services, which runs the Modesto shelter under a contract with the refugee resettlement office, said it has asked the federal government about providing attorneys to the children. The spokesman said the nonprofit has not received clear answers.

Bethany runs one other immigrant shelter in Michigan, where the spokesman said it has had no issues with contracted legal services.

Podkul’s organization has been providing legal assistance to migrants in Modesto, because Bethany — not government officials — asked for help.

Kids in Need of Defense has been sending attorneys to bridge the gap in legal services at this facility because the government has not contracted with an organization to provide legal services. The government contract allows the organization to hire staff to recruit, train and mentor private sector attorneys who normally practice in another area of law like tax law to take these cases. Without the contract, organizations like Kids in Need of Defense is not able to hire staff — who are more experienced in immigration law — to support volunteers wanting to serve these children.

Volunteer attorneys from Kids in Need of Defense have been traveling from Fresno or San Francisco to work with the children in Modesto. None of the migrants housed there has had an immigration hearing in front of a judge, Podkul said.

Podkul said cases move faster when migrants have access to contracted attorneys. Sometimes immigrants just need an attorney to explain their options and they choose to return to their home countries, freeing up space on a court docket.

“The government talks about trying to expedite these proceedings, but they’re shooting themselves in the foot,” Podkul said. “These children having access to an attorney is the best way to expedite a case.”

There are two other migrant detention facilities for children that reportedly have not provided legal services, according to news reports.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
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