Georgia Sees Surge in Unaccompanied Minors

Credit Martha Dalton/WABE News

There’s been a recent surge in unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. from Central America. Many of those children end up in Texas and Arizona, but Georgia has also seen a spike in numbers.  

Listen to the broadcast version of this story.

Jessica Daman is a staff attorney with Atlanta’s Latin American Association. Two years ago, about 25% of her cases involved unaccompanied minors. Now, she says, it’s the majority of what she does.

Daman is just one of three Atlanta-area attorneys that handle such cases. She says that means a lot of kids go without legal representation.

“If, by pure numbers, you aren’t lucky enough to get one of those three attorneys, it’s often very difficult for children to have money to retain private counsel and afford $5000 for an attorney to take their case,” she says. 

The children, who come mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, are apprehended at the Mexico/U.S. border. They’re placed in a shelter system while federal officials search for a sponsor, preferably a relative. That’s how many of them end up in Georgia. The kids then have to go through immigration court proceedings.

Daman’s youngest client was a two-year-old whose parents were deceased. 

“It seems ridiculous to have a two-year-old responding to charges,” Daman says. “But these children are here without permission just like anyone else, so legally, there’s no cut off line for when they can be charged as unauthorized, undocumented here and removed to their home country.”

The child’s grandfather was eventually granted custody.

Many of the children Daman represents qualify for special immigrant juvenile status. They have to prove family reunification in their native country isn’t possible. Time is also a critical factor. Daman says kids have to qualify for special status before they turn eighteen.

“Our juvenile court jurisdiction only extends up until age eighteen,” she says. “So, once children are over the age of eighteen in Georgia, they’re not eligible for certain benefits.”

President Obama recently announced a new federal program that will provide more attorneys to help with the case backlog. Daman hopes that will enable more children to receive representation.