In 2008, 15-year-old Wilmer Villalobos Ortiz fled his native Honduras. The previous year, the 18th Street Gang that controlled his neighborhood tried to recruit him and threatened him with death if he refused. Ortiz’s journey to the United States included a month and a half riding on the infamous trains known for their dangers and perils that snake through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border. Once in the United States, Ortiz was apprehended and placed in immigration detention and then in foster care as his case made its way through the backlogged immigration courts. Ultimately, Ortiz was lucky enough to have a pro bono attorney, who helped him understand the court proceedings, win his case, and gain permanent U.S. residency. Most children who flee violence in Central America by coming to the United States are not as fortunate.
It is difficult to understand why a country that provides lawyers to anyone accused of a crime does not guarantee counsel to undocumented immigrant children, who have—by definition—violated a civil offense. Less than one-third of children in pending immigration cases have been able to secure legal representation. Because many of these children have legitimate protection cases, and because they face a much better chance of winning their cases when they have lawyers, having legal representation is in many instances a matter of life and death.
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