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Attorney: Migrant children have long shot at legal status

PHOENIX -- A Valley immigration attorney believes hundreds of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border illegally face a long journey. "Nobody in the immigration process in removal proceedings is entitled to an attorney," said Judy Flanagan.

That means the hundreds of children that arrived in southern Arizona over the weekend start out with a very difficult case.

"A lot of kids fall through the cracks," Flanagan said.

Oftentimes, children only get legal representation if a relative or guardian can hire an attorney on their behalf or an organization provides pro bono lawyers to help them.

Flanagan explained the process in which migrant kids who are apprehended by Border Patrol go through. Border Patrol first tries to place the children with a family member that has agreed to take care of them and agree to make sure the children show up in court.

"It's unaccompanied minors that don't have anybody here that would end up in one of the children's shelters," she said.

It is the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that cares for the children and places them in shelters across the country.

Once children arrive in the facilities, they are questioned to see if there is anyone in the country that can take care of them. In the cases Flanagan has agreed to take at no cost, she interviews the child to understand their situation.

"See if there is potentially an asylum case," she said.

In some cases, there may be a possibility for relatives who live legally in the U.S. to help with a legal immigration recourse for the children.

Recently, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has caused many children to be drawn like magnets to the country, looking for a legal path to stay in the U.S. These migrant children, Flanagan explained, do not qualify for DACA.

"That's only for kids who have been here in the United States in 2012 and have been here for at least seven years prior to that," she said. "Many of these kids are not going to be eligible for anything and may eventually either have to take voluntary departure or a removal order."

The problem of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. is not new, but has intensified. The Associated Press reports authorities arrested 47,017 unaccompanied children on the border from October through May, up 92 percent from the same period a year earlier.

As for the chances these migrant kids may have at acquiring legal status in the U.S., Flanagan said the majority won't have a chance to stay in the country.

"It can be difficult to win asylum cases," she said.

Overall, Flanigan thinks the immigration system is flawed, and something needs to be done.

"I just hope immigration officials deal in a humane way with the young people that are coming through the system."

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