By Natalie Schultheis, Florence Project AmeriCorps volunteer
My experiences as an AmeriCorps volunteer working at a shelter for unaccompanied minors left me both blessed and haunted by the children I worked with. I loved walking into work and meeting the faces of recently arrived children and helping them adjust to life in the shelter. I adored the moments when children would teach me words in their indigenous languages and ask me what life was like in Indiana, or California, or Utah. And my heart swelled when I witnessed moments of gratitude, like when I saw a student give his teacher a red velvet pencil he had won playing bingo and say, “I do not have money to thank you for what you’ve taught me, but I have this pencil.”
But, as you can imagine, not every moment was so rose-colored. I met children in search of parents they had never seen face-to-face. I taught English and math to teenage girls who had been raped, and carried the evidence in their bellies. I heard countless stories of gang violence, including my favorite student who, after a phone call home to his family, turned to me in shock and said, “They killed my brother.”
The shelters do incredible work, but without legal aid, many of these children with strong cases would walk into court alone and walk out with an order to return to the dangers they had fled. For these reasons, I left for law school, desiring to help immigrant children secure the safety they so ardently deserve and desperately need. This summer, I represented a client seeking voluntary departure to his home country with the help of Vanessa Pineda, Florence Project Pro Bono Coordinator. While I was prepping him the day before court, Fernando [name changed to preserve confidentiality] nervously asked me, “Have you done this before?” I imagine this must be every intern’s and new attorney’s least favorite question. Trying to convince both myself and Fernando that we were prepared, I responded that Vanessa, my supervising attorney with whom he had been working, had done this many times and would be there in case we needed her help. Fernando looked about as nervous as I felt inside on the morning of his court hearing, because his 18th birthday was just two days away. If the judge was not sympathetic, it was almost certain that ICE would come to the shelter and handcuff Fernando on his birthday and take him to adult detention in Florence for an undetermined amount of time.
After some back and forth between the immigration attorney and myself, the judge granted voluntary departure and wished Fernando happy birthday. I saw the look of relief that spread over Fernando’s face as he slid down a bit in his chair, releasing the fear that had kept him rigid with anxiety. Instead of going to adult detention in handcuffs on his birthday, Fernando would celebrate at home with his family and have a second chance to create better opportunities for himself than the ones that life had presented to him in his childhood.
Luckily for these children, the Florence Project exists, and lucky for me, they welcome summer legal interns. This summer, I saw how unaccompanied minors’ battles continue after they overcome the hurdle of reunifying outside of the shelters. In the Children’s Team office, I saw how the hours of drafting declarations, filling out applications, researching the law, and interviewing clients resulted in an awesome transformation from fear and uncertainty to hope and security for the future. It is all worth it to keep children out of chains and give them a chance at a better life.