While the plight of immigrant and refugee children separated from their families is top of mind for many of us these days, for the last decade a national organization called Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), has quietly been providing expert, compassionate legal services to children caught in the U.S. immigration system. KIND is driven by contributions but also by what can only be called a “movement” of pro bono lawyers.
Last year, the Boston office of KIND received an unsolicited $50,000 “Out of the Blue” grant from the Boston Foundation. (See sidebar.) Local pro bono attorneys handle about 80 percent of the more than 600 open cases Boston KIND has at any given time.
Joe Teja, a partner at Cooley LLP, learned about KIND while serving on the firm’s pro bono committee. He tells the story of a youth he has been representing who had fled from a brutal gang in El Salvador that had targeted him for assassination. After escaping by bus and trekking across the Mexican desert, he was seized at the U.S. border. Shelter staff at the border determined that he had an aunt in Boston and arranged for his travel here. Upon arrival, his case was referred to KIND and, with the help of Teja, he received special immigrant juvenile status.
According to Teja, however, he is in a precarious situation. “He’s in queue for a green card, but every six months we have to renew his employment authorization document, which allows him to live here and support himself.” Teja has become a mentor to the teenager, who had to leave his aunt’s home because of domestic abuse that was occurring there. Even though he’s gifted in math, he had to drop out of school to pay rent and send money back to his struggling family in El Salvador.
“The anxiety many of these kids are experiencing can be paralyzing,” says Marisa Howe, Managing Attorney at Boston KIND, who admits that it’s also stressful for KIND staff and pro bono attorneys. “This kind of work is difficult in the best of times, but now the policies affecting their lives are totally unpredictable. That adds to the pressure on the kids and the attorneys representing them.”