Stepping Onto U.S. Soil Is the Beginning of Legal Battles for Central American Kids

For the Salvadoran kids who escape gang violence and actually make it to the United States, stepping onto U.S. soil marks the end of their grueling journey, but the beginning of their legal struggles.

Such is the case of Manuel Portillo, who, at 16 years old, left El Salvador to live with his parents in Austin, Texas, where they had moved to send money home. A year later — like many other kids from El Salvador seeking asylum — Portillo had to go to court and argue his case to seek refugee status, but he couldn’t find a pro bono lawyer that would help him. He missed his court date in fear of being deported and continued going to school and working at a local restaurant.

But he was arrested one night when he was driving without a license. “When I saw a judge later, he said I just had to pay a fine because of the license — but then he said I’d have to go into the hands of immigration officers,” Portillo told Vice. He was sent to a detention center for eight days.

Forty-nine percent of kids fleeing Central America between 2014 and 2015 had no legal representation to help them navigate the system and get asylum. Those who have access to a lawyer are five times more likely to stay as refugees.

Things could improve for these kids with the Day in Court for Kids Act proposed by House Democrats, which would provide legal representation for migrant youths. “We are talking about children running for their lives in many instances,” said Rep. Luis Guitierrez, one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “We need to make sure they have access to a lawyer, translator and a fair chance to navigate the American legal system so that they can get justice if they qualify for asylum and are fighting deportation.”

Portillo was lucky enough to have attorney Jacqueline Gurany step in and reopen his case. He was released from the detention center on bond thanks to her. “Manuel actually has a very strong asylum claim. He lived with [his] grandmother in an area dominated by gangs, [which] start to recruit boys at age 9 or 10 in the neighborhood,” Gurany said. And his uncle was nearly killed by gang members.

“I’m surprised Jacqueline helped me — and I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be here,” he said, “and I’ll keep fighting to stay.”

Read more about the future improvements on legal representation for migrant youth seeking asylum here

READ: Could the U.S. be Blamed for Gang Violence in El Salvador?

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