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Policy: Immigration

Clinic on the front lines of immigration battle

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News,Business,Immigration

BALTIMORE (AP) — As the director of the University of Baltimore School of Law's Immigrant Rights Clinic, Elizabeth Keyes has overseen case after case over the past two years involving immigrants hoping to remain in the country.

But Keyes said some of the most compelling cases are those of children who cross the U.S. border illegally, sometimes without family members accompanying them, and often fleeing gang violence.

"They're incredibly rewarding cases," she said, "but there's always a moment of cognitive dissonance when you go to court and see a room full of kids in front of a judge, and you just think, "Why are we putting so many resources to bear to send these kids back to places where they could be harmed?'"

With thousands of children entering into the country illegally in recent months, it's not easy for all of them to get access to legal representation, especially for those who are detained at the border, Keyes said. More than 57,000 minors have crossed the southern border illegally since October.

Keyes shares her clinic's space (and, on occasion, some of its student-lawyers) with the Baltimore office of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit organization that seeks to ensure no unaccompanied immigrant minor must appear in immigration court without representation.

In its offices across the country, KIND recruits and trains attorneys who will take immigrant minors' cases pro bono, said Liz Shields, supervising attorney for pro bono programs at KIND's Baltimore office.

"If they're released (from detention) — and many of them are — to a family member, then organizations like KIND and others have pretty good success at getting representation for the kids," Keyes said.

Each semester, about eight to 10 students in the Immigrant Rights Clinic handle at least one client each, but often more, Keyes said. While the clients range in age, the clinic now has about half a dozen open cases of immigrant minors, in various stages.

Hayley Tamburello, a 2013 graduate of UB Law who worked in the Immigrant Rights Clinic for several semesters, plans to open a solo practice in Baltimore in September that will focus on immigration law.

For her, the most gratifying part of juvenile cases often is hearing the testimony that parents or guardians give on behalf of their children.

"What I've been finding is that a lot of the reasons for coming to the U.S. are what you see on the news right now, the gang violence," Tamburello said. "It's difficult to get stories out of the children, for them to open up and tell what's going on."

Keyes, who has personally handled several cases involving immigrant children pro bono, most recently took on the case of 5- and 6-year-old siblings from Honduras.

The brother and sister were accompanied on the journey by a family friend, but their struggle to remain in the country is no easier.

One of the biggest challenges facing lawyers representing children in these cases is simply helping them understand what's going on, Keyes said. Explaining an attorney's role to a child who hasn't yet reached elementary school age is a daunting task.

"The 5-year-old boy, I made him laugh when I told him he was my boss, and I had to work for him," she said.

Language barriers can be another issue. Although Keyes and Tamburello both speak Spanish, some immigration lawyers must learn to communicate with their young clients through a translator.

But unlike adults, "kids learn English really quickly," Keyes said. "They're young, and their brains are really adaptable."

Rexanah Wyse, who also graduated from UB Law last year, worked on immigration legal services during a six-month postgraduate fellowship at the Catholic Charities' Esperanza Center in Baltimore.

Also a clinic alumna, Wyse worked at the Esperanza Center on cases in which clients were applying for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which can be granted to immigrant children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by at least one parent.

"I have a strong passion for working with children's rights and child welfare, and I wanted to do my part in helping these children have a chance to escape the trauma that they've suffered in their home country and make a life for themselves here," she said.

At Tamburello's new immigration law practice, she will take cases from immigrants of all ages — but, like Wyse, she said she is particularly dedicated to helping immigrant minors.

"If I could do juvenile cases all day," she said, "that's what I would do."

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Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com

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