Nearly 1,300 unaccompanied minors who’ve crossed the Mexican border have migrated to Louisiana, one of the top states in the country where immigrant children are turning to escape violence or abuse, or find family.
But those children aren’t given a court-appointed attorney.
“When you have children in a court system and they don’t have adequate representation, then our system of due process fails,” said Kathleen Gasparian, an immigration attorney in Louisiana who started PB&J — or Pro Bono & Juveniles — which pairs up immigrant children with lawyers who will help them for free.
PB&J, a new program, has started with a sort of boot camp that teaches the attorneys the basics. Some may not even have immigration or family law experience, but the program helps pair those lawyers with more experienced ones through a mentorship program. It was something that interested Matthew Steel, a 25-year-old Louisiana native who is still in law school.
“Not to get too religious but I think it’s something that God is sort of pushing me into. I feel obligated in that sense,” he said. “Part of it was after Katrina, I saw a lot of people come in. I started talking to people and I would hear about the struggles that they were encountering, just to get justice in this country. It kind of inspired me to get into it.”
The program also pairs up volunteer Spanish speakers to help translate for the kids and their attorneys. For now the program is helping the most vulnerable children — kids who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both of their parents. With PB&J, there are more attorneys now in Louisiana who are willing to lend a hand.
“I don’t think I can solve all the problems and I can’t fix all the cases…and the services we are talking about is only going to help a small percentage of children, but it’s a start,” Gasparian said.