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Immigration Clinic Helps Unaccompanied Children

Thanks to Justice Americorps Grant, Las Vegas is one of the few places in the nation where unaccompanied children receive free legal representation in court.

Business & Community  |  Jan 6, 2016  |  By Mike Kalil

From left: Alissa Cooley and Katelyn Franklin. (Aaron Mayes, UNLV Photo Services)

Children who flee a dangerous homeland to come to the United States as undocumented immigrants typically trade a dire situation for one with simply poor prospects.

Beyond a foreign land and language, they face a legal system where their chances of winning the right to stay in the U.S. without expert legal help are abysmal, regardless of the perilous circumstances they’re trying to escape. And unlike defendants in criminal proceedings, immigrants facing deportation are not entitled to appointed legal counsel if they cannot afford it, regardless of age. 

“We have kids who are 7 or 8 who would be going to court by themselves,” said UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Professor Fatma Marouf, who co-directs the school’s Immigration Clinic. “It’s very difficult to win an asylum case on your own. Having a lawyer who knows how to frame the legal arguments can make a huge difference.”

Now, thanks to two Immigration Clinic lawyers funded by a Justice AmeriCorps service grant, Las Vegas is one of the few places in the nation where unaccompanied children receive free legal representation in immigration court. The Boyd School of Law was one of just seven organizations in the nation — and the only law school — to receive the funding sponsored by the Justice Department and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Boyd alumnae Katelyn Franklin and Alissa Cooley (both ’14) are managing about three dozen immigration cases, with clients ranging in age from 8 to 16.

They’ve implemented a holistic approach in representing their young clientele. Interviews establish trust, identify potential witnesses and key issues to litigate, such as seeking asylum for persecution in their country, or obtaining special immigrant juvenile status for kids who have been abused, abandoned, neglected or endangered by a parent under state law.

“They’re so innocent,” Cooley said. “They didn’t do anything to deserve this. They’re going through stuff American teenagers can’t imagine.”

Some of those issues include non-legal problems, like needing immunizations but being ineligible for Medicaid. Franklin and Cooley help them find community partners offering free care, easing their acclimation to a new country.

“They experience culture shock, and Alissa and I are really the only consistent figures in the immigration system that they encounter,” Franklin said. “It’s impossible not to become emotionally involved in these cases — not just because they’re kids, but because of (the circumstances they've faced).”