City lawyer will counsel immigrant children

NORTHAMPTON — Despite a long and often dangerous trip through Mexico, more than 57,000 unaccompanied Central American children have arrived in the United States over the past 10 months.

But once they have gotten onto American soil and are placed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they are often being fast-tracked to deportation, rather than getting the necessary legal assistance that could allow them to pursue political asylum and remain in the country.

To help ensure that these children go through “credible fear” hearings so they can tell their stories and explain their reasons for seeking asylum before immigration judges, a Northampton attorney is heading to the Southwest later this month.

“It’s a major issue because everyone is entitled to this interview,” said Megan Kludt, an attorney with Curran & Berger, LLP, which specializes in immigration law. “It’s really about getting them due process.”

During an interview at her Masonic Street office Sunday afternoon, Kludt explained that she will be traveling to the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, on Aug. 26, where she will spend a week providing pro bono representation to some of the children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who are being held there. Artesia is one of three facilities in the Southwest where women and children are being housed, often four families to a unit, with children sleeping in bunk beds in small quarters.

Kludt is traveling through an initiative of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which began recruiting attorneys after learning that many children in these detention centers are having their cases denied quickly by immigration officials. This means likely deportation without the benefit of a hearing.

The Department of Justice is instructing immigration judges to hold deportation hearings within 21 days, which gives little time for attorneys to work with the children and prepare them for hearings. While the children have a right to an attorney, the government is not obligated to provide them one. Kludt said her work will put the children in a better position when they go before the judge who will decide whether they should be released on bond. If this happens, they can leave the detention center and would be able to stay in the United States as they await a later decision on their immigration status.

For Kludt, the fast-tracking is frustrating because it is taking away rights the children are entitled to once they arrived in the United States. “It’s appalling people in our country are being denied attorneys. The priority is to help in whatever way we can.”

Kludt, who speaks Spanish, is familiar with immigration courts in Boston and Hartford. When she heard that the New England chapter of the lawyers association had raised money to pay for airfare, lodging and incidental expenses for three attorneys to assist the children, she applied and within a week was selected to go.

Kludt will be working 12-hour days while she is in the Southwest. She isn’t sure how many children and families she will be able to assist, noting that it can take two to three hours to prepare one case, give children an understanding of what they are facing and fill out the forms and documents the government requires. “I will work with them to properly articulate their claims,” Kludt said.

Dan Berger, a partner with the law firm, said it will be a challenge for his colleague, observing that many of these children will have memorized stories from the start of their journeys that may not be compelling to a judge to determine that there is a likelihood of persecution should they return to Central America. He said Kludt will have to create a rapport with the children and do this under time pressure.

Having worked with El Salvadoran and Guatemalan adults, Kludt said she understands why people flee those countries, even putting their lives at risk as they travel through Mexico. “It’s a very, very dangerous journey, which says something about the alternative,” Kludt saud.

When she gets to New Mexico, she will have an orientation session and meet up with other lawyers who are doing similar work.

The success of the lawyers association is evident, Berger said. Since it got involved, the denial rate for cases has dropped by nearly 75 percent — from 120 per week to 34 per week, Berger said.

Kludt said she is also interested in the evolving case law regarding what is considered persecution, which is one of the criteria that a judge will use. Children can’t use the dangers posed by gangs or the fear of living in poverty. But some who say they are coming to the United States to flee poverty may be covering for the real reasons they are in fear. “As attorneys, we can help to parse it out,” Kludt said.

Berger said he was paying close attention to the possibility that Westover Air Force Reserve base in Chicopee could have housed some of these detained children. “Had any come to Chicopee we, as a firm, would have been able to help,” Berger said, observing that the sheer number of children who have arrived from Central America is staggering. “These numbers are something like we’ve never seen.”

Kludt said she will measure what she accomplishes later this by getting children the information they need before an immigration hearing. “If people are eligible, they should be given hearings. I would consider that a huge success,” Kludt said.

Besides her work with immigrants, Kludt previously spent time in Cambodia working with non-governmental organizations to assist people in accessing the legal system, children in getting vaccinations and ensuring a clean water supply. She views what is happening with these Central American children as a similar humanitarian issue. “It’s not very often we’re able to help out in a way like this,” Kludt said. “There are so many kids. They really deserve a chance.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com

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