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Q&A: Megan McKenna on Legal Aid for Undocumented Youth

Photograph of a teen girl.

Each year, thousands of youth come to the United States illegally without a parent or guardian. Many of them wind up in immigration court without a lawyer to help them navigate the system.

To find out what youth workers can do to help these young people, NCFY spoke with Megan McKenna, who directs communications and advocacy for Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that arranges free legal representation for undocumented, unaccompanied youth.

NCFY: What can youth workers do if they find out one of their young people is undocumented?

McKenna: The most important thing is for the child—no matter what—to try to have a lawyer or some sort of professional legal advice to help them navigate the system.

NCFY: How long does it take to secure lawful status for young people?

McKenna: It can take a while. It really depends on the type of case. For example, an asylum case can take some time because it takes time to gather all the information needed to present the case to the U.S. government. And there are a number of procedures for some of the other types of immigration relief, sort of steps you have to take. So it can take a year or more.

The immigration courts are backlogged, so a lot of it may depend on when the child gets his or her first court date. They may not get a court date for six months, eight months.

NCFY: While this long process is happening, what can youth workers do to help the young person?

McKenna: There are a number of circumstances that the kids can get work authorization. Contact a social services agency or a lawyer who knows what forms of immigration relief would allow them to work after a period of time.

One of the main things is to help youth stay out of trouble. Any kind of contact with law enforcement could have a negative effect on the case. It wouldn’t necessarily make the child ineligible for protection, but it could complicate things, and in some cases it could bar the child.

Help them stay in school as well. A number of the judges ask children who are before them in their immigration court proceedings, Are they in school? What are they doing in school? How are their grades? And although legally that has no binding on the judge’s decision, it’s sort of part of the picture that the judge would have of the child. So it’s another helpful thing to show that the child is working hard, trying to be a good student, and that sort of thing.

To find free legal counsel for undocumented youth, request a referral from KIND or go to the Executive Office for Immigration Review’s list of free legal services providers.

Additional Resource

Immigration and Schools: Supporting Success for Undocumented and Unaccompanied Homeless Youth”(PDF, 1.4MB) by KIND and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth

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