Advocating for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

Video produced by Omar A. Casas Jr.

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With the help of Volunteer Child Advocates, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights advocates for the best interests of unaccompanied and separated immigrant children facing deportation proceedings. To become a Volunteer Child Advocate, visit TheYoungCenter.org/Volunteer.

MaritsaThe Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is a non-profit which advocates for the best interests of unaccompanied and separated immigrant children facing deportation proceedings. A lot of these children are going to court on their own. They are in these facilities that are very controlled. 

Sofia: In a more just world our work wouldn’t be that necessary and sometimes it’s difficult to reckon with the fact that our work exists because of such an unjust immigration system. 

Maritsa: My Name is Maritsa Leyva and my pronouns are she/her/ella.

Sofia: My name is Sofia Peña and my pronouns are she/her.  

Maritsa: I am the volunteer coordinator at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, Harlingen office.

Sofia: I work with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights here in Harlingen and my position is Case Support Associates. 

Maritsa: So I play multiple roles here, but I think the most important role is my role in the community specifically in connecting volunteers to our organization. Recruitment starts about three months out and the reason why that is very very important is because we get a high number of referrals.

Sofia: On the Young Center website there is a link under how to help that says “Refer a Child” and if you click on the referral child link it takes you to a form that sends the information to our client tracking system. It’s a very protective portal. It comes directly to me and then I enter it onto our spreadsheet and then that’s when I get started calling the case managers and asking for updates on the other cases to see which child we can be appointed to. 

At the moment we have close to 400 referrals from the shelters all or across the Rio Grande Valley and it’s difficult because we want to take every case that we get but we are limited on the amount of cases that we can take so I communicate with the case managers who have referred the children for services with the Young Center and I asked them “Does this child have any options have for reunification?”, “What is going on in their life?”, and then using that information that’s how we choose the most urgent cases to be assigned to. 

Maritsa: It is a challenge to serve as many children as we want to serve without the help of volunteers because our model is a child led model working collaboratively with staff attorneys and social workers who also collaborate with volunteer child advocates and having those volunteer child advocates come on board with us allows us to take on more cases to help and serve more children. 

Anytime we take a case we visit with an individual child once a week every week for the duration of their case and on average that’s 3 to 4 months. 

Sofia: A case at the Young Center will be closed usually when we know that the child is stable in their new environment. So if a child has been reunified in the United States we want to know do they have do you know, do they have basic things like food & shelter which they usually do if they’re being reunified to a home that means that the Office of Refugee Resettlement staff has already determined that the that the home is safe for the child to go to. We’re going to do our own talking to the child and to the sponsor to see if there’s anything else that they can use. Any community resources that we can offer that we can give them links to. We’ll also provide them with a list of possible low-bono or pro-bono legal service providers in their area. So once they have all of those tools we can definitely close the case as long as we see that the child is stable and in a safe environment.

Maritsa: As support staff we also are child advocates but we work on a one-to-one model. That means that you’re only working with one child at a time to encourage the building of that relationship. Gaining the child’s trust and hopefully them opening up to us. So the more volunteers we have the more children we can help. 

Sofia: What I usually tell people is one thing that you can do that will directly enrich a child’s life is volunteer with the Young Center because that’s something that directly affects the child. So you will sit down and you will see the child, they will see you. They will see someone who cares. If you’re somebody who speaks Spanish and feels like they could make the commitment I say give it a shot.

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