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Trump Administration's Suspension Of Legal Aid For Migrant Children Prompts Outcry


Let's circle back to word this week that the Trump administration is canceling education, including English classes, and playground recreation and legal aid for migrant children housed in government shelters. The administration says they don't have the money to pay for these services with so many children flooding across the southern border. Last month reached a record high. Migrant advocates call the move outrageous and possibly illegal.

To talk more about what it might mean practically for the children involved, we have called Michelle Ortiz of Americans for Immigrant Justice. That's a nonprofit that, among other things, works to protect the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children. She is on the line from Miami. Michelle Ortiz, welcome.


KELLY: So you have worked directly with children at the Homestead Shelter in South Florida. Can you take us through one case, one specific type service that you provide now that you wouldn't be able to if and when these cuts go forward?

ORTIZ: Generally we provide a Know-Your-Rights presentation to every single child that is detained in an ORR facility in South Florida. Next we provide a one-on-one legal screening with every single child that is in one of these shelters. That legal screening has two purposes. One is to let us know, is this an emergency? Do we need to file this child's case right away? Or are they eligible for relief and are going to be released to another location? If they're eligible for relief and going to be released elsewhere, we will work our butts off to try to find them a lawyer wherever they are released to.

KELLY: What would it look like for a kid without a lawyer, without this type of legal aid that you're describing?

ORTIZ: I mean, you can only imagine. There's no way that any child would be able to navigate this system alone. You know, no child is going to be able to represent themselves in court. And, you know, we see that already with unrepresented children.

KELLY: The administration position, as I alluded to, is that the number of migrant children apprehended crossing the border without a parent or guardian is at all-time record highs, that this is an emergency situation and that they're having to process so many children that they are out of money for everything which is not - and I'll quote - "directly necessary for the protection of life and safety." What is your response?

ORTIZ: Well, I'd argue that legal counsel is often an issue of life and safety for these children. They have fled horrific, violent conditions in their home countries. And an order of deportation without the opportunity of due process could mean a threat to their life and safety. When we're talking about the numbers of children coming in here, while the numbers may be higher, they're not that substantially higher than they were in 2014. And we were able to continue and actually expand services.

KELLY: In your view, is this move legal? I mean, is the U.S. obligated by law to provide these services for unaccompanied minors in federal shelters here?

ORTIZ: Absolutely. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act mandates that children be provided with Know-Your-Rights presentations and legal screenings when they are in the custody of ORR.

KELLY: So what is your next move?

ORTIZ: I mean, our next move right now is to really understand what's going on because there hasn't been much confirmation of anything. We're first and foremost ensuring that we are able to continue our services and that no child will be left without access to counsel. We're speaking to the other stakeholders. And regardless of funding, we're not going to abandon our commitment to these children, and we will figure out how to make it work and how to continue these services.

KELLY: Michelle Ortiz - she's deputy director of the nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice. Thank you.

ORTIZ: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.