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Idea of the Day: Children Fleeing Central America Need Legal Counsel

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idea light bulbIn 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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To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Liz Bartolomeo (poverty, health care)
202.481.8151 or

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education)
202.478.6331 or

Print: Tanya Arditi (immigration, Progress 2050, race issues, demographics, criminal justice, Legal Progress)
202.741.6258 or

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues,, faith)
202.478.5328 or

Print: Beatriz Lopez (Center for American Progress Action Fund)
202.741.6255 or

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Rafael Medina
202.478.5313 or

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or

Radio: Sally Tucker
202.481.8103 or


This is part of a regular column: Idea of the Day

For more from the same column, click here