Author: Peter Bogdanich is the Immigrant Youth Resources Coordinator, and AmeriCorps VISTA at the Immigration Advocates Network.

Representing Children in Immigration Matters screenshotIn November, the Practicing Law Institute (PLI) held an engaging seminar designed for attorneys representing children in immigration proceedings. Over the course of three panel discussions, PLI faculty and guest panelists discussed the unique challenges that they face while representing child clients. View a recording of the entire seminar HERE.

Responding to a Humanitarian Crisis

This training can be viewed in the context of the ongoing surge in Central American asylum seekers arriving at the southern border of the United States. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, over one hundred thousand ‘unaccompanied alien children’ (UACs) from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have made the treacherous journey to the United States seeking asylum or other forms of relief since the beginning of fiscal year 2014.

The arrival of so many UACs has put a spotlight on one previously overlooked immigration option known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). Designed for children who have suffered from parental ‘abuse, abandonment, or neglect,’ SIJS offers children who meet the criteria a relatively simple way to gain legal status in the United States. SIJS cases go through state family court rather than the specialized immigration courts. However, the process for applying for this relief is fraught with procedural difficulties. For example, advocates for SIJS applicants must locate and present documentation (marriage licenses, birth certificates, etc.) proving the parentage of the child. This is not always an easy task, especially for children born in rural communities where marriages aren’t formally registered or orphaned children. During this panel, attorneys Jodi Ziesemer and Angela Hernandez discussed international service of process, and the different policies relating to service in Central American countries.

Profound Ethical Challenges

Professor Theo Liebmann of the Hofstra Youth Advocacy Clinic and Elizabeth Frankel from the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights led the next panel through a series of ethical scenarios that often test advocates representing immigrant children. One key dilemma was how to ensure that the child, not the attorney, is ultimately making the decisions regarding their case. This can be particularly difficult when the client has developmental disabilities that limit their ability to understand the options available to them, or is suffering from post-traumatic stress. Other common ethical quandaries involve what the advocate is required to do if they believe their client is experiencing abuse and what to do when the interests of the child and parent/guardian diverge. As the panelists explained, navigating such issues is never easy, but learning how to respond to them is key to becoming an effective advocate.

Evolving Nature of Asylum Claims

The UAC surge caught many immigration advocates off-guard; particularly those who specialize in asylum law. In one panel, Heather Axford, Staff Attorney at Central American Legal Assistance, explained how the very concept of political asylum has changed along with the influx of child asylum seekers. Most asylum seekers have traditionally been overtly political actors, like opposition politicians, human rights defenders, or journalists who had been persecuted by an established government body in their country of origin. The Central American UACs arriving at our border are often fleeing gang violence, which raises the question of whether gang intimidation and violence can constitute ‘persecution’ under asylum law. Axford argued that, for Central American UACs, political expression goes beyond traditional electoral politics. In countries where the rule of law is tenuous, where criminal organizations actually exert political power, defiance against such groups may constitute a political act.

The Unaccompanied Children Resource Center

To address the influx of UACs, the Immigration Advocates Network, in partnership with Pro Bono Net and the American Bar Association, built the Unaccompanied Children Resource Center ( This online tool provides free legal resources for immigrants and advocates, and helps guide attorneys to Pro Bono opportunities involving UAC clients.


Practising Law InstituteThis seminar/webcast was hosted by the Practising Law Institute. To register for any webcasts or seminars go to for more information.

At the core of Practising Law Institute’s mission is its commitment to offer training to members of the legal profession to support their pro bono service. PLI offers pro bono training, scholarships, and access to live programs, Webcasts, and On-Demand archived programs, as well as an extensive Pro Bono Membership program. For more information about PLI’s pro bono programs and activities, please Follow PLI’s Pro Bono Group on LinkedIn, and on Twitter @ProBonoPLI.