NEW YORK— Isik Basirir was 15 years old when she left her family's home in Turkey and moved to New York to live with an older sister. However, when she overstayed her tourist visa, she joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of undocumented youths living in the shadows in the U.S.
"My sister obtained a green card, I guess a couple of years after I got here, but she didn't have her citizenship back then, so she wasn't able to sponsor me," Basirir said. "We went to private lawyers, to ask if there's anything we could do. But they always said ‘no,’ like there's no way."
She finally found her way to the Safe Passage Project, begun in 2006 by Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School. The program trains and matches volunteer pro bono attorneys with children who need representation in immigration court, or who are facing deportation.
Benson says the need is stark: although U.S. immigration law grants children special legal protections, it does not entitle them to lawyers to help secure those rights.
At a recent fundraiser for the project, Benson told of a case involving a toddler named Ian.
"Last month, there was a 3-year-old sitting in that deportation chair," she said. "You have a government prosecutor, you have a judge on the bench, and you have the child sitting with a translator and, in this case, a grandmother. And if the Safe Passage Project were not there, there would be no one standing up for that 3-year-old, or helping that grandmother navigate the court system."
In the past, Benson said in an interview, children and youths under 18 were rarely pursued by immigration authorities. That changed about seven years ago, she said, and the policy has accelerated under the Obama administration.
"Children apprehended at the border are no longer simply being released or put on a back shelf," she said. "They're put into deportation proceedings."
The great majority of those in legal jeopardy are Central American teenagers who crossed the Mexican border into the U.S., often to reunite with a parent or other family member already in the U.S.
Under treaty law, only Mexican youths may be returned immediately. Federal authorities place other children with family members in the U.S., if any can be found, in foster care, or in immigration detention centers for juveniles.
"If they apprehend a parent and child together, they will keep them together, and they do have a few detention centers where they can keep them together. But if a parent has a criminal record or is seen as a national security problem, they might be separated," Benson said.
In Westchester County, just north of New York City, Benson said, "there are 350 kids in detention every day. Some are there for a few days, and some for months."
"On the positive side, the federal government wants to interview children to make sure that they're not being trafficked," she went on. "[In] sex trafficking, labor trafficking, young people are particularly vulnerable. So, our asylum officers and border patrol officers are trained to try to identify victims of trafficking."
Yet the system often fails even children who have been trafficked, she said. "We might identify that [child victim], and then put them into federal detention. We don't necessarily have an easy way for them to get released into a long-term foster care placement and get immigration status."
"Most of the young people we've met, there's a reason they don't want to go home: not just dire poverty, but real danger in their communities," Benson added.
Some youths, like 16-year-old Ousmane Barry, ended up in the U.S. before they were old enough to choose. His parents brought him from Guinea eight years ago. They are both now dead, and he lives with an aunt and uncle in the Bronx.
"Life is good over here. Soccer is good, too," he joked at a recent practice. Barry's coaches say he is unusually talented, and can look forward to a college athletic career, perhaps even a professional one. That would not have been likely, however, before Safe Passage Project lawyers won him legal residency earlier this year.
"It means a lot, because now I can travel outside the country and come back in, and go, like I want to visit my country. I could go there and come back," Barry said.
"There's an irony in my work," Benson said. "I don't want the government to put children into removal proceedings, but because they are being pushed into deportation, we're able to help find them pro bono counsel, and the promise of these protections is made real. If they weren't being put into removal, they'd live undocumented, and they would grow up with nothing."
Yet Safe Passage and similar projects lack the resources to help more than a few children facing deportation, and the numbers are surging. In New York alone, more than 5,000 current immigration cases involve juveniles. And the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service predicts that more than 60,000 minors will be apprehended at the Mexican border in 2014.