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As federal funding dries up, private philanthropy ensuring Vegas' child immigrants don't face deportation proceedings alone

Luz Gray
Luz Gray
Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
ImmigrationLocal Government

Alejandra Hernandez and her husband lived in the U.S. with prayers on their lips, thinking day and night of the daughter they had left behind in their home country of El Salvador when the girl was just 1-year-old.

When they arrived in the country 10 years ago to find better jobs and be able to send back money to their family, they never imagined that they eventually would have to make one of the most difficult decisions in their lives: trying to bring their daughter and her grandmother north to save them from gangs.

“They were threatening my mom,” Hernandez told The Nevada Independent earlier this month, after an event celebrating a $250,000 donation from attorney Ed Bernstein that will help UNLV continue assisting unaccompanied child immigrants after government funding dried up. “She had a little clothing store and they had taken everything from the business. Each month they wanted her to give them a certain amount of money, and if not, they were going to kill them.”

The grandmother and the girl, who was 8 at the time, began their long trek toward the United States in the company of strangers in 2014, at a time when tens of thousands of others were streaming toward America from violence-riddled countries in Central America. Between October 2013 and May 2014, for example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained 46,188 children under the age of 17 who were coming into the U.S. from Central America.

It was a trip, Hernandez said, that came with hunger, cold, fear and death; some didn’t make it. The girl sometimes can’t sleep at night because she remembers it all.

In spite of all they experienced on the long journey, they managed to arrive at the border between Mexico and the United States. There they encountered another obstacle: the grandmother was deported, and the girl taken to a shelter where she stayed for about a week.

To the Hernandez family, it seemed like an eternity. The grandmother told them what had happened, and thanks to a TV commercial with the number of a helpline for families of unaccompanied minors, and after making many calls, they got in touch with the authorities who were taking care of the girl.

“She called me every day,” Hernandez said. “They treated her well and she played, but she cried and cried, and told me, ‘Mom, take me away from here, please!’”

A social worker from the shelter traveled with the girl to give her back to her parents in Las Vegas. The family was finally reunited.

Although they had already started the legal process on her behalf, the family didn’t have a lawyer. Hernandez said help arrived at precisely the right time, through a letter offering legal representation to unaccompanied minors like her daughter. It was through the UNLV Immigration Clinic.

Alejandra Hernandez after the event at UNLV. Thursday, November 16, 2017. Photo by Luz Gray.

With a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye, the mother said the girl received political asylum and the next month they started the process of obtaining legal residency.

Hernandez said she feels very grateful for the legal assistance she’s received through the Immigration Clinic, and that she’s happy to know that the program that helped her family — now renamed the Edward M. Bernstein and Associates Children’s Rights Program after its new benefactor — will now be extended to help reunite other children with their parents. A lawyer isn’t guaranteed in immigration court, but having one drastically increases the chances that someone will avoid deportation.

“We didn’t have the money to do the legal procedures for my daughter,” Hernandez said. “I thank God for the help that they’ve given us. If it weren’t for them, I think my daughter would have been deported to El Salvador.”

UNLV’s role

Just as the number of unaccompanied minors arriving to the U.S. surged in 2014, the Immigration Clinic at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law landed money from the U.S. Department of Justice to provide for their legal defense. The school was one of just seven programs nationwide that received the money.

Two freshly minted lawyers, funded by $24,000 annual stipends through the AmeriCorps program, tried to stave off deportation for children and teens. Many of those children would have otherwise been facing a judge alone in immigration courts that don’t provide public defenders like other courts.

But since the Trump Administration decided to cut the funding effective Oct. 31, it’s now only private philanthropy that’s keeping the doors open.

Event celebrating a $250,000 donation from attorney Ed Bernstein that will help UNLV continue assisting unaccompanied child immigrants. Thursday, November 16, 2017 . Photo by Luz Gray.

“You have these children essentially being sent to the United States because they’re being raped, married off as teenagers to gang members, dying in terrorist attacks in these cities,” said Bernstein, the Las Vegas lawyer whose donation will keep the program going for the next five years. “My wife and I feel it’s important for us to step up and provide some funding so they can have attorneys representing these children.”

Officials with the UNLV clinic call the money a lifesaver, but say they also hope for more. The clinic has 108 open cases right now — a small number portion of the 1,500 open immigration cases in Las Vegas that involve children; 400 of those children still don’t have lawyers as they work through deportation proceedings.

To complicate things further for children, the Trump Administration has shut down part of a program called Central American Minors that allowed youth trying to flee violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to rejoin parents who are lawfully present in the U.S.

The program, created under the Obama Administration, offered refugee status to youth able to establish a specific fear of persecution in their home countries, and whose parents were legally in America. If those children weren’t approved for refugee status — which was the case for about two-thirds of applicants — they could get a two-year renewable “parole” designation that allowed them to come to the U.S. and continue their quest for a more permanent legal status from the safety of the U.S.

In August, the Trump Administration ended the parole portion of the program and retroactively rescinded approval for some 2,714 children who had already been granted parole but hadn’t yet traveled to the U.S. Families with relatives whose parole was canceled now worry for the safety and the lives of children left behind.

“Essentially what they’ve done is they shut down any legal means for kids fleeing violence in Central America to come here,” said UNLV Immigration Clinic director Michael Kagan. “The attorney general has said that ‘they’re wolves in sheep's clothing,’ so that’s what we are confronting to defend these kids against.”

Kagan is referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ assertion in September that Central American criminals affiliated with the violent Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang are using refugee programs as a recruitment tool and abusing the unaccompanied minors system.

The typical case

Often, children who get legal help through UNLV’s Immigration Clinic had been in hiding before they came north, Kagan said. They frequently were moved from house to house and town to town in Central America in hopes of finding safety before their families sent them to the United States.

A mom places her head on her daughter's head during Metropolitan Police Department Office of Community Engagement, outreach meeting on immigration enforcement Monday, March 13, 2017, at East Las Vegas Community Center, 250 N. Eastern Ave. Jeff Scheid/ The Nevada Independent

That journey often involved traveling through Mexico with strangers and riding on a train called “The Beast” until they reach the border. When they end up in Las Vegas, it’s usually because they have family here, such as parents who had been working here and sending money back home.

Kagan said some of the cases the clinic is dealing with now have entered a more complicated phase, and lawyers are up against an uncertain federal climate that’s shaken up immigration programs including DACA and TPS (Temporary Protected Status).

While local government and state entities in other parts of the country are marshalling public money to provide lawyers for people facing deportation, Nevada hasn’t seriously considered that.

“I don’t know that there’s any political prospect of that happening in Clark County or in the city of Las Vegas, so we’re gonna depend on private philanthropy to support this year,” Kagan said.

Kagan said he hopes UNLV can become a central player in legal aid for immigrants, as it has been in helping students renew their DACA applications this fall when the end of that program was announced. But he said they’re going to need more money than even the $250,000 to keep up their pace.

Bernstein, whose wife grew up in Peru at a time when that country was embroiled in terrorism and violence similar to that in Central America, said he hopes the couple’s gift inspires others to step up and donate.

“I sense that in this country now there’s a groundswell of interest by individuals because they see the federal government is not going to do it,” he said. “I think it’s ultimately a good thing because I think it re-energizes people and they’re not just sitting back letting others do it … now it’s ‘the buck stops here.’”



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