Nonprofit organization prepares migrant children in SoCal shelters for immigration proceedings

LONG BEACH, Calif. (KABC) -- Every week, teams of attorneys visit Southland intake shelters for unaccompanied children seeking asylum and protection in the U.S. to deliver presentations and prepare them for immigration proceedings.

"We tell them 'You're in Long Beach, that means playa larga,'" said Yliana Johansen-Mendez, legal services director at Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

Attorneys use a map to show kids as young as five where they're going.

"It's the point where every child wants to say, 'Where am I going? Where's Louisiana? Where's Georgia? Texas?'" she said.

Most of the children currently at the Long Beach Convention Center will be reunified with loved ones outside of Southern California, and that's when making a legal case really begins.

"We really are just preparing them for the fact that this is a legal system that they will have to participate in and the importance of...participating and coming to court," said Johansen-Mendez. "That first hearing, a judge is most likely only going to verify their identity and then ask them if they have an attorney or would like time to get an attorney."

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U.S. immigration court does not provide immigrants -- including children -- a defense attorney.

"We want them to know that they're not alone in this process. That there are attorneys available whether it is through ImmDef, other nonprofits or private attorneys," said Johansen-Mendez.

The organization's attorneys do represent some of the children who stay locally.

"We will see some children from the first day that they arrive in shelters until they become a lawful permanent resident," said said Johansen-Mendez, adding that it's a process that can take several years.

For example, one of their clients, Davis, feared persecution over his sexual orientation. At the age of 16, he left El Salvador after his friend was killed for being gay. He's now on his way to start college and supports LGBTQ+ friends who deal with similar challenges.

Unaccompanied minors arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border from all over the world.

"Latin America but also from countries in Africa, countries in Southeast Asia," Johansen-Mendez said. "Here in Long Beach, this center has been focused on Spanish speakers. So, it's primarily children from Central America, about 80% are from on Honduras and Guatemala."

Johansen-Mendez added that they're mostly teen girls.

Some of the children at the facilities were previously deported to Mexico when first seeking asylum under the Trump-era policy Title 42, which remains in place. Some became victims of organized crime.

"Some of the children that we've seen actually crossed on their own after a parent went missing," said Johansen-Mendez.

So far, more than 900 children who arrived in Long Beach are now with family or sponsors. The facility is scheduled to close by early August.

Immigration officials and attorneys say the goal is to reunify them with loved ones as soon as possible.

"It's important to recognize that these children are brave and resilient, and they've chosen to make this journey in many cases," Johansen-Mendez said.
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