NYC Touts Progress on Helping Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors

NEW YORK — Jul 20, 2015, 4:34 PM ET

All unaccompanied immigrant minors who have reached New York City illegally have access to free legal representation as part of a program that local officials hope will serve as a model throughout the United States.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat who has made immigrant rights one of her signature causes, said Monday that the New York City Council Unaccompanied Minors Initiative has screened over 1,600 immigrants, taken on 648 cases directly and won 14 asylum cases.

"No child in New York City is facing immigration court alone," she said at a City Hall news conference.

She urged other cities to follow suit in preventing unjust deportations, saying "there is no excuse for failing these vulnerable children."

Tens of thousands of children and teenagers have arrived in the U.S. over the past year, crossing over the Mexican-U.S border after fleeing their homes in Central America. The council program began a year ago to aid those who reach the nation's largest city.

One of them, Jocelyn Vazquez, left El Salvador alone in May 2014 and journeyed to New York to reunite with her mother and brother.

"I did not know I qualified for immigration relief," said Vazquez, now 17, who told reporters that she left her country to escape the threats that gangs made in her school. "Now my lawyer is in the process of closing my case before immigration court."

The council budgeted $1.9 million for the program, which was a partnership between the legislative body and two nonprofits: the Robin Hood Foundation and the New York Community Trust. About 5,000 lawyers and student volunteers have been trained, officials said.

About 6,000 unaccompanied minors reached New York state in 2014, according to federal statistics.