Free Legal Services Severely Stretched to Accommodate Arriving Children, Parents

Ten-month-old Belen has a court date.

The smiling baby at some point will have to go before a judge and plead his case as to why he should not be deported from Chelsea after having left El Salvador and crossed the southern U.S.  border recently with his mother.

Were it not for Suffolk University Legal Services, the little tyke – who cannot yet speak – would be expected to stand alone before a federal Immigration Court judge and explain why he qualifies for political asylum in the U.S.

It would be more than a mouthful for the baby boy.

“The picture you have of situations like this is profound,” said Steve Callahan, a law professor at Boston University who has worked with Suffolk Law for years. “Picture this baby or a 5-year-old boy standing in front of a judge with no one by his side having to argue his case intelligently before a judge. The law is just and humane, but this makes no sense. You see babies who have court dates and have to be in other states to plead their cases. This is what we see.”

For example, just last month Suffolk Law Program Director Ana Vaquerano welcomed a mother and her 5-year-old boy into the Chelsea office.

The boy was to be in Atlanta in three days for a deportation hearing, and the mother had no possessions, not even any reliable shoes, and certainly no way to get the boy to Atlanta.

She was crying.

Vaquerano was crying.

The mother was willing to put the child on a plane alone if need be, somehow or some way.

Essentially, what had happened was the two came across the border illegally and were detained. Having family in Atlanta, they were sent there and told there would be a court date in Atlanta at some point. However, the family members in Atlanta were not able to keep them for very long, and sent the mother and child packing.

They ended up in Chelsea; they found out about the hearing only days prior.

Without pause, Vaquerano went to work.

“I told her not to worry,” she said. “I told here that we would find a way to get her and her son to Atlanta. We were going to find a way because we always do. We connected with a few people, friends at Logan Airport who had friends in the airlines. We used our network, and I was even willing to go to my church and try to get the money there. However, one day I came in and opened my e-mail and found an itinerary for a first-class flight to Atlanta on American Airlines for her and her 5-year-old. We had to do anything we could to keep this child from being deported and we were able to help. They made it to the court date and there is likely a legal remedy for them. Had she gone anywhere else, though, it wouldn’t have worked out. There just wasn’t any time.”


Such situations aren’t entirely new for Suffolk Legal, which has been doing yeoman’s work on Broadway Chelsea for some 30 years. However, the frequency and desperation of the situations has had a barnstorming effect on the organization – with two young lawyers being recruited in to offer free services once a week to accommodate the surging need for help in navigating an immigration system that has been turned upside down by the processing of huge numbers of illegal immigrants who have come over the U.S. Border from Central America in the last 10 months.

“These children started coming six months ago and they just keep coming and coming and coming to the office,” said Vaquerano. “I had only one lawyer working one day a week. It wasn’t enough and I didn’t know what to do. I had so many appointments you wouldn’t believe it. We were getting 20 appointments in two days and it was going all day long. One day we stayed until 7 p.m.”

The reinforcements that showed up at the Broadway office were attorneys Jason Corral and Amarilys Marrero, who agreed to come work for free to help – having formerly worked with Suffolk Legal through Catholic Charities.

Marrero said the story of the 5-year-old boy was one that worked out, and for every story that works out, many more do not.

“We see stories like that all the time, but that story is really the best case scenario,” she said. “Most don’t end that way. We talk to the court and the person at the court is only concerned about the law and maybe they should be, but we can’t convey to them how the person in the office is feeling and what they’re going through. We see what they’re going through, see them crying and do everything we can. Sometimes all we can do is cry with them.”

One of the major situations for the immigration court system is that despite entering the country illegally, the situation isn’t considered a criminal offense. That means that those facing Immigration Court hearings don’t qualify for public defenders to offer legal help. They either must find the money to pay for a private lawyer, or as in most cases, seek out free legal services in the form of places like Suffolk Legal.

That is one reason that the Immigration Courts have become so clogged due to the recent influx and a reason that court dates can be months or years in the future. Free legal services take more time, and the cases are inherently complex. Judges all over the country are prone to grant continuances and find legal remedies if at all possible – which takes time.

Corral said money has been funneled to enforcement on the border rather than to legal pathways and remedies for people caught at the border.

“The backlog right now in the courts is complicated and the cases take a lot of time to prepare,” he said. “We’re probably responsible for the backlog because we’ll go in and ask for more time to prepare. On the other hand, the judge doesn’t want to deport a child without finding out if they have a legal remedy. They’ll give two or three continuances to make sure. It comes down to the fact that nobody is paying for people like us and there are all these cases that nobody is paying for. There just aren’t enough resources to provide the legal pathway because everything has been dedicated to enforcement.”


Corral said there have been people coming from Central America for several years.

Some came many years ago during the time of Civil War there and received Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from the government. Over the last decade, people from those countries have also been coming and most made it over illegally without getting caught.

He said he believes the difference now is that the border is more secure and people are willing to get caught and take their chances.

“I think the thing is that the media right now is reporting it as a crisis, but we’ve been dealing with this for years,” he said. “I remember writing a paper on this problem in 2008, which was six years ago. The difference now is that it escalated – it was building and building and now it’s escalated, but we recognized the situation six or seven years ago.”


Part of the problem, all said, is that many of the countries where the influx is coming from are El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and those countries are facing brutal crime from violent youth gangs.

In many cases, Corral said, those gangs are comprised of young people who committed crimes in America and were deported to a country that couldn’t handle policing these newfound criminals.

“These are kids who lost hope,” he said. “They’ve been left behind by family or they’ve been deported from the U.S. and now they’re on the streets in a country they never knew. Essentially, we’re deporting back our youth problems to Central America where they cannot handle it. These kids get powerful and manipulate others and create a shadow government. They demand a ‘war tax’ or protection money. It’s almost what you’d be paying to a government if there was a real publicly funded government that could protect the people.”

The other kids that seem to be ruling the streets are those left behind many years ago by adults who have earned TPS status, have earned some other status or have existed here illegally for decades.

“A lot of times the people with TPS left a little one behind with the intention of being reunited,” he said. “They now have a teen-ager at home in their country that they never brought here. They have had a grandparent or another family member taking care of that teen-ager and they won’t do it any longer.”

Some of those young people flee to America; others stay on the streets.


For many of those illegal immigrants who end up in Chelsea and seek out Suffolk Legal to help them navigate their cases, there are few remedies other than to seek political asylum.

For the children such as 5-year-olds or babies, there is often a legal remedy, but for those who have solid footing, it is often difficult.

“When they’re unaccompanied at the border and when their family situation is more secure, that is the hardest one to remedy because the only option is filing for asylum,” said Corral. “Asylum requires very specific conditions to be met…When the fear is from gang violence, we make our best case for political opinion or membership in a particular social group that is an anti-gang group. Unfortunately, the odds are against us in those cases.”

In other cases, there is a parent who can remedy the situation – a parent that the child has left their country to be reunited with. Most times that parent has legal status and, after a series of court sessions, can make make the situation into a good one. However, it isn’t that easy. Many times the parent has moved on over the years to another family; has remarried and started anew only to have a virtually unknown teen-ager show up from thousands of miles away.

“A lot of family members or parents end up not wanting them there and that can become abusive,” said Marrero. “Domestic violence is a big part of their story here. Many times they come to reunite with a parent who has remarried and started a new family. Many times the best stepfather in the world becomes the worst stepfather in the world. A lot of times these things happen because of economics and frustrations with immigration status. That happens a lot.”

Another all too common situation – as is potentially faced by Belen and his mother – is that the child has a legal remedy to stay, but the mother has no chance.

“All too often there’s a legal remedy for that kid, but no remedy for that mom in an asylum case,” said Corral. “It’s very possible there is asylum for the kid, but the mom will be made to stay and wait for her day in court – which could be years – and with all  liklihood that she’ll be deported when that day in court comes. She’ll have to leave that child behind here in the U.S. That’s the chance they’re willing to take.”


When young people are taken into custody at the border, many times the first thing they do is pull out a cell phone and make a call to someone in America – perhaps someone in Chelsea.

It’s something that Corral said belies the entire situation – the globalization of everything, including people.

“There are a lot of questions about why there are so many more now, but in a lot of aspects we’re more global in many ways,” he said. “We see the free flow of trade and now we also see the free flow of people and workers. The law is always the last thing to catch up to how the world is working. These kids have cell phones and are in constant communication. It’s a smaller world and people can traverse expanses of land we thought was impossible just 10 or 15 years ago. They want something better for themselves. In many ways, they’re taking a gamble to leave a situation and try to make a change to better their lives. We can all relate to doing such things in our teens and 20s. That’s who we’re seeing come here. The ones we don’t see are those who accepted their lot in life and stayed behind.”

For those who did take off on that adventure, Marrero said determination is an absolute. She’s convinced that any young person here illegally, if given a chance, will succeed.

“I was working with a 17-year-old girl who had nothing and knew nobody, but you could tell she was going to be somebody,” said Marrero. “There’s a determination in here and in all of them, and then at the same time she contains these layers of sadness because of all the things she’s fought against. Despite that deep sadness, you look in their eyes and realize that given the chance, they will fight through any adversity to success.”

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