The Florence Project
Standing strong in the wake of increasingly hostile US immigration policies
Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border since October 2017, and a new policy calling for criminal prosecutions of all those who cross illegally is likely to increase that number drastically. It follows several other hard line immigration policies from the Trump Administration, including the travel ban on arrivals from seven majority Muslim countries and the promise to end DACA and with it the protection of nearly 800,000 individuals (‘Dreamers’) who arrived in the US as children.
The United States has historically treated immigration violations as civil, rather than criminal offences, so parents have not typically been separated from their children when they cross the border. However the new policy would have all immigrants face criminal charges, meaning their children could be separated from them at the border and placed into protective custody to be processed separately as unaccompanied minors. This practice has gained momentum in the last two months, particularly in Texas and Arizona, where many families from Central America seek to cross. The majority of apprehended migrants are from Honduras and El Salvador, two countries overwhelmed by violence, with children commonly targeted for recruitment by gangs.
The Florence Project provides free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children in immigration custody in Arizona. Although the government assists all other defendants through public defenders and legal aid attorneys, it does not provide attorneys for immigrants fighting their cases. As a result, an estimated 86% of detainees go unrepresented, unable to source or afford a lawyer. The Florence Project strives to address this inequity through direct service, partnerships with the community, and advocacy and outreach efforts.
During 2017, the Florence Project secured asylum for over 70 unaccompanied children in Arizona, who had fled violence or persecution in their home countries and sought refuge in the US. Carlos, who grew up in El Salvador, was one of these successful cases. As a teenager, Carlos was repeatedly targeted by gang members who tried to recruit him on his way to school. They threatened to harm him and his family when he refused, and he and his parents were afraid to go to the police, fearing they would tell the gang members. Carlos began living in constant fear of being attacked or murdered, something that he had seen happen to others in his community. It was no longer safe for him to go to school and he felt he had no choice but to travel alone through Guatemala and Mexico to the US border, hoping he could reach his grandmother who had lived in the US for many years. Thankfully, Florence Project attorneys represented Carlos in his asylum case. After nearly a year of legal preparation, and many sleepless nights, Carlos was granted asylum. He was able to spend Christmas with his grandmother, free from the fear and threats that followed him everywhere in El Salvador. He now attends a Phoenix public school, and enjoys learning English.
The Florence Project works to ensure that all immigrants facing removal have access to counsel, understand their rights under the law, and are treated fairly and humanely. Despite the challenging circumstances they are facing and renewed hostility towards refugees and migrants in the US, they continue to increase access to justice among this vulnerable group.