At the age of fifteen, Diego left his home in Honduras after a family member had been murdered by the local gang. He and his younger sister traveled by foot, bus, and eventually La Bestia—a series of cargo trains used by migrants fleeing north, known as “the Train of Death”—looking for refuge. Many children die on this journey. Others are kidnapped, or caught by immigration agents and deported. Diego, whose name has been changed, and his sister were assaulted. They spent nights without food and water. But they survived. Ninety-two days after their journey began, they reached the Mexico-US border, only to be promptly arrested by border patrol. Their case was transferred to a New York court, where Diego faced a new challenge: convincing a judge to allow him and his sister to remain in the United States. Diego did not understand his rights. He did not know how to advocate for himself. He spoke no English.
Just prior to their first court appearance, Diego and his sister were approached by lawyers from the Safe Passage Project in the hallway of immigration court at 26 Federal Plaza. Safe Passage’s attorneys, who can often be found at the court looking to serve unrepresented children, offered free legal aid. They helped Diego and his sister obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile status, a protection for foreign children who have been abused or neglected and face significant risks in returning to their home country. Two years and seven court appearances later, the siblings received their green cards. Diego has since graduated from high school and is saving money to attend college. He wants to be an actor or a lawyer.
Diego and his sister are among the thousands of kids who have received free legal services from Safe Passage. Founded by New York Law School professor Lenni Benson and attorney Gui Stampur, Safe Passage’s motto is “No child should face immigration court alone.” The nonprofit’s in-house team and network of pro bono attorneys handle hundreds of cases each year. Stampur, whose interest in the field traces back to his childhood spent playing soccer and building friendships with immigrants across New York, says a major hurdle for those seeking asylum is simply finding an attorney. The numbers bear out his claim: represented children are granted leave to remain in more than 90 percent of cases.
Unfortunately, not every story is a success like Diego’s: in 2017 alone, there were over 3,300 juvenile cases at New York Immigration Court where children went unrepresented, according to TRAC Immigration at Syracuse University. If history is any guide, over 80 percent will be deported.
I recently sat down with Stampur, Safe Passage’s Deputy Executive Director, to discuss the children he represents, the current administration, and the future of immigration reform.
—Phineas Lambert for Guernica
Guernica: Thousands of unrepresented children show up for court without counsel. Aren’t they entitled to a public defense? Even accused murderers are guaranteed due process.
Gui Stampur: In the criminal court system, you have the right to an attorney, and one will be provided to you at government expense. In the immigration context, it’s totally different. You are allowed to bring an attorney, but one is not provided. From the beginning we’ve taken on representation of kids who appeared at immigration court by themselves. With an attorney, the chances of success are exponentially higher, estimated at about 93 percent. Children without a lawyer will be deported 83 percent of the time.
Guernica: The difference is staggering.
Gui Stampur: Immigration law is complex. It’s challenging for attorneys to navigate and needs to be updated. It’s even more confusing for a child who doesn’t speak English to have to show up to court alone and figure out how to assert their legal claim for relief. This could be a six-year-old, a three-year-old. We’ve had clients as young as one. They can’t advocate, do anything, for themselves really. You have the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) attorney on the left side, the Safe Passage attorney on the right, and the judge up in front. The government is asking for quick removal. The child’s feet don’t touch the floor! He’s too small for the chair.
Guernica: You worked in a corporate legal job before law school. What brought you to this type of work?
Gui Stampur: As a New Yorker, I believe what makes our city unique is that it’s founded on an immigrant population. Everyone comes from somewhere. Growing up playing soccer, I had teammates and opponents who had immigration issues. When it was time to apply for college, they couldn’t obtain loans and the support they needed. That always stuck with me.
Guernica: Tell me about the kids.
Gui Stampur: I’m often asked who my favorite client is. There are a number of stories I love to share. One eighteen-year-old girl [was] born in the Dominican Republic and came to the US when she was six or seven. She spent most of her life in Washington Heights. We met her when she was fifteen. Her Spanish teacher called us and said, “Our most exemplary student has immigration issues.” She was undocumented. She was the number one student in her class. The school doesn’t have a valedictorian, but she would have been it. We took on her case and determined that she was eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile status.
She had all kinds of opportunities, but undocumented students cannot receive federal financial aid. So even if she were accepted to Ivy League schools, she wouldn’t have been able to attend. We got her the green card before the deadline for applying for federal financial aid. She took a scholarship to Skidmore, where she’s currently a sophomore.
Guernica: What would have happened if this girl’s teacher had not contacted you?
Gui Stampur: It’s very likely she wouldn’t have been able to accept that scholarship. She’d probably be working, maybe off the books or at a job she’s far too qualified for as opposed to pursuing her dream of being a college graduate and trying to be a successful businessperson.
Guernica: Under our current legal regime, might she have been a candidate for deportation?
Gui Stampur: She was not going to get into significant trouble with the law. However, kids fear that in this era, a minor infraction, such as turnstile hopping or trespassing without even realizing it could lead to deportation. Or say a kid goes on a school trip. If the trip is in a different state, and if there is a raid, for instance, and if the kid is undocumented, she could face deportation.
Guernica: Are raids more prevalent today than during Obama’s presidency?
Gui Stampur: The Obama administration deported far too many people. The Trump administration is only one year in. It’s scary that it’s almost one year. I’m not sure what’s going to happen at the end of four years, but I can tell you that there are raids going on in Long Island that are profiling our clients. Recently, we had two children rounded up by ICE and sent across the country to a detention center in California. The charges ended up being false. They were based on supposed gang affiliations. One kid had been wearing a Chicago Bulls hat, which supposedly was a sign of being in a gang. The other kid had a tattoo that gave the impression he was part of a gang. It was actually an image of prayer beads. The irony is that this is exactly what they were fleeing in the first place, and now they have been treated like criminals and targeted because of the way they look and speak.
Guernica: Why California?
Gui Stampur: There are two jail-like detention centers in the country that the government sends such supposed high-priority people to: one in Yolo, California, and the other in Shenandoah, Virginia. They were picked up in the middle of the night and sent across the country, without a chance to speak to a lawyer.
Guernica: Thankfully, the charges against them were dismissed. What happens to the kids who get deported?
Gui Stampur: They return to the very dangers they fled. Children are fleeing Central America because their lives are in imminent danger. We’ve heard stories of young girls being raped and kids being murdered. Recently, we had a client whose brother was unrepresented in immigration court and got deported. He told us that when his brother returned to Honduras, he was forced to relocate to a town sixty miles away, where they had a distant cousin. The gang still controlled their hometown and had attacked our client and his brother the year before. If things did not work out with their cousin, our client said his brother would make the dangerous journey again.
Guernica: How has your field of legal representation changed since Trump took office?
Gui Stampur: In the last year, [more] attorneys have committed themselves to taking on cases pro bono. There’s been an increase in support and interest. Five or six years ago, we were calling attorneys and requesting, even begging, them to take on pro bono cases.
Guernica: In a weird way, it almost sounds like the president has been good for business.
Gui Stampur: Actually, a couple people have said that to me, and I say back that I wish I didn’t have a job. I’d happily be unemployed if our kids were afforded due process protection. The president’s xenophobic rhetoric and hyperbole has really scared people. He’s taken a totally polarized view of immigration. He’s conveyed that not only is he anti-immigrant, which is anti-American, but also that he will continue to assault immigrants for the rest of his presidency.
Guernica: In that vein, Safe Passage recently issued a press release calling out this administration’s immigration demands following its rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Can you speak about that?
Gui Stampur: President Obama signed an executive order, DACA, that shielded people who’d arrived in the US at a young age. If they met certain requirements, like graduating high school or military service, not having a criminal record, they could stay. With one stroke of the pen, Trump undid DACA and put these 800,000-plus people in trouble. Many have lived in this country almost their entire lives and don’t speak a language other than English. They’ve graduated from high school and college and law school. They’re attorneys and domestic workers, they take care of children, they are teachers, among other things. So in addition to this action being inhumane and unjust, it also doesn’t make any economic sense.
Guernica: Were Diego and his sister affected by DACA’s rescinding?
Gui Stampur: Because they’d recently arrived, they were not DACA-eligible. They hadn’t spent enough time here, so DACA’s removal wouldn’t have affected them. Their guardian was DACA-eligible. She didn’t have any criminal record and lived here most of her life. She was nervous about sharing information and how that could potentially affect her status and DACA application.
Guernica: Talk about the process with Diego and his sister after Safe Passage took on their case.
Gui Stampur: From the day we met them to the day we got their green cards—gathering evidence, meeting with their social worker, court appearances—it ended up taking twenty-one months, a typical length for the process. Now it’s taking longer, three to four years. There’s a backlog: there aren’t enough visas readily available for kids from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Guernica: Were there issues you had to deal with beyond legal representation?
Gui Stampur: There were times when both clients didn’t have enough food. We had to figure out their living situation. Sometimes there was a little less focus on their case because other clients had more immediate needs. Diego and his sister had relatives in Honduras whose lives were in danger. They were considering whether they might have to leave so they could protect their younger siblings.
Guernica: That’s terrifying. Then again, so much of this is terrifying. Stories like Diego’s must inspire lawmakers toward immigration reform.
Gui Stampur: Immigration reform is long overdue. [The law] is antiquated and doesn’t protect those who need it most. We’ve been waiting for immigration reform and nothing has happened. I’m not optimistic that’ll happen under this president. There’s been this deportation assault that’s taken place that makes us quite defensive. There’s a protection for unaccompanied alien children, a designation Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration have made it pretty clear they want to target. It would affect our clients directly, potentially no longer allowing kids to file an asylum application if they’ve been here longer than a year. There’s talk of an attempt to amend the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and Special Immigrant Juvenile status. There’s an attempt to undo these protections for refugee kids, so the leg we stand on when telling these children’s stories and advocating for them could potentially be swept out from under us.
Guernica: Still, compared to the circumstances these children have come from, the US looks pretty good.
Gui Stampur: Some of our clients who are fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala haven’t seen stability or safety in years. Just the opportunity to go to school, to walk freely in their neighborhood, is a newfound freedom, even if it’s potentially a neighborhood most Americans would consider unsafe or working a job most Americans wouldn’t want to do. There’s a perspective that a lot of our clients carry with them that makes them unique, that makes them great. We’ve seen kids who’ve arrived here at fifteen, who figure out how to complete high school by nineteen or twenty and get into college while working at the same time. They’re not better for their experience, but the toughness and the fortitude and the resilience they display will stay with them and is part of them. For them to be able to get to twenty-three and twenty-five and graduate college…it’s amazing.
Guernica: What kind of support do you provide while the legal process unfolds?
Gui Stampur: We have a program called Safe Passage in Schools where we serve undocumented students enrolled in public schools. We work with teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, and coaches. We believe in this holistic model because it makes the case stronger. The client feels like they have more people on their side addressing the social issues, teachers looking out for them in the classroom, while we look out for them in court.
Guernica: There’s so much happening in New York. What’s going on in the rest of the country?
Gui Stampur: As we talk about Safe Passage’s expansion, there’s talk of expanding to other states like Virginia where resources are incredibly thin. Where you have a couple of attorneys trying to do this work the same way we did six years ago, walking over to the immigration court and seeing who we could help. There are people trying to do this work in other parts of the country that are underserved, whether it’s in Virginia or Arizona, but there are still thousands of kids here we aren’t serving. There are also many thousands of kids who don’t have status, who have been here since they were young and may not have been DACA-eligible. If there was ever some form of immigration reform passed, the need for supporting that population would increase too.
Guernica: You’ve spent the past six years on the front lines fighting for children. How has your perspective on the justice system changed?
Gui Stampur: We have clients who have survived horrific things: family members’ deaths, sexual violence, rape, unspeakable poverty. When I think about the stories, the kids we discussed, the seven hundred clients we work with, their stories give me strength. The kids’ stories and our team’s willingness to fight what’s proven to be an incredibly xenophobic executive branch inspires me to push harder.
Guernica: Are you hopeful for the future despite three more years of the current administration?
Gui Stampur: I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything like this before—such anti-immigrant sentiment and policy. I am nervous about what’s going to happen, but when I think of a team that could take on the challenge and fight for our kids, I’m confident.