The UK’s DREAMers - Migrant Kids in Need of Defense

The UK’s DREAMers - Migrant Kids in Need of Defense

Summer Party at Canalside Estate with residents, neighbours, local organisations and businesses - as part of Counterpoints Arts' participatory arts and place-based project at a local housing estate. Photo Credit: Briony Campbell

By Ros Wynne-Jones

Inside a Baltimore immigration court, a five-year-old girl from Mexico in a red velvet dress and braids is struggling to see over the respondent’s table. She is all by herself, clutching her little doll. She can’t even reach the microphone. “Why are you here?” the judge asks her. The girl stares back at him, huge-eyed, plainly terrified.

The judge looks to the back of the courtroom, where a woman is observing the proceedings. “Talk to this lady,” the judge says. “She may be able to find you a lawyer.”

The lady is Wendy Young, President of Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), a non-profit organisation started in 2008 by the actor and UN refugee envoy Angelina Jolie and Microsoft to recruit pro bono attorneys to represent children in immigration courts.* Without KIND, most of these children would have no access to legal support at all, standing literally alone in the court. When they do have representation, the difference is dramatic. “We win 90 percent of cases when there is a lawyer in place,” Young says.

KIND US has trained more than 13,000 American attorneys to build a national network of lawyers able to represent children in immigration cases.

Based in Washington DC, KIND US has trained more than 13,000 American attorneys to build a national network of lawyers able to represent children in immigration cases. It has forged partnerships with over 210 law firms, corporate legal departments and law schools, and since 2009, leveraged over $50 million so that those children don’t need to be alone. The little girl in the red dress is just one of those children whose life has been irrevocably changed as a result.

Across the Atlantic in London, unparalleled waves of migration have hit the UK, at the same time as government austerity cuts have left support networks hanging by a thread. Since the UK voted to leave the European Union in June, the situation of child migrants has become even more confusing and difficult. But long before the ‘migrant crisis’ reached its peak and Britain voted to leave the EU, it was already home to 600,000 undocumented people, around 120,000 of whom are invisible children. In some ways, the high profile explosion of migration is further masking the needs of these children who are already living in the UK.

In this context, lawyers and immigration activists have been watching KIND US closely. And this month, KIND UK opened its doors, supported by United States counterparts, who will share expertise and knowledge.

Partners in the scheme include Central England Law Centre (CELC), Migrant & Refugee Children’s Legal Unit (MiCLU) at Islington Law Centre, Coram Children's Legal Centre, and Legal Services Agency Glasgow*. Jolie has already given the new project her support in an interview with the BBC. The project is being funded over a three-year period by Microsoft Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and Unbound Philanthropy.

“Legal aid cuts in the UK have left thousands of undocumented children unable to access legal advice,” explains CELC Chief Executive Sue Bent. “Many of these uniquely vulnerable children are either born in the UK or have spent most of their formative years here and could become British citizens, if only they could find a lawyer to help them navigate complex laws and through the difficult process of applying to the Home Office. Without this support, they face a bleak future, blocked from full access to education or employment, and left at greater risk of abuse, destitution, and exploitation.”

One of the charities supporting undocumented young people in the UK is Just For Kids Law*, which provides support, advice, and legal representation for young people in difficulty. Dami and Chrisann are two young ambassadors for the law centre who both know what it’s like to grow up undocumented in the UK.

Dami, 22, arrived in the UK with her family from Nigeria at the age of eight. She dreamed of studying criminology and psychology at university. “But then I found out I couldn’t. The school kept asking me for my university application form. I kept making excuses, saying I’d forgotten it. In the end they stopped asking me. I was heartbroken.”

She eventually managed to get a “limited” status. “I can’t go to university but I am allowed to work,” she says. “But if I get sick and can't work I can't get benefits and have to pay a surcharge to qualify for NHS (National Health Services) treatment, even though I'm paying tax here.”

Chrisann, 21, came to Britain when she was eight, from Jamaica. She was a first class student and head girl of her secondary school. “I won an oratory competition to go on a trip to the US,” she says. “That’s when I found out I had no papers.”

With Just for Kids Law’s help, Chrisann also won limited leave to remain and a scholarship, which meant she could take up a place to study law at the London School of Economics. Her limited status means she is counted as a “foreign” student.

In the US, these young people have their parallel in the DREAMers – the youth movement organised around the ‘DREAM Act’, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. While Congress has yet to pass the DREAM Act, the Obama Administration has offered many of these youth relief from the threat of deportation and ability to work lawfully through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Like Dami and Chrisann, most of the DREAMers have also lived much of their lives in the US. “The DREAM Act kids are self-organised young people, and they are Americans,” Young says. “They dress and sound like America.” They just don’t have the same papers as their school friends, and when they reach 18 their lives tend to ‘stop’ in exactly the same way.

The post-Brexit scenario in the United Kingdom has been challenging for refugees and immigrants alike, with an upsurge in racist abuse and violence. But it is important to add that there has also been strong public support for immigrants. London, which has a newly elected Muslim Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has been steadfast, with a campaign called ‘London is Open,’ welcoming people from all countries.

A ‘Refugees Welcome’ demonstration organised on Facebook last year attracted an unexpected tens of thousands of people. Citizens UK have also organised welcome parties for Syrian refugees, and the response at the community level to resettled families has been warm.

Meanwhile, in May, the UK government was forced to backtrack on its opposition to accepting thousands of unaccompanied child refugees from camps across the English Channel in Europe. A key voice was Lord Alf Dubs, who arrived in the UK as part of the Kindertransport that brought German refugee children to Britain in the early stages of World War II, saving around 10,000 lives.

The Just For Kids Law website quotes the writer James Baldwin. “For these are all our children. We will either profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” What is clear is that whatever part of history is damaging their lives, refugee and migrant children need help, whether in the Kindertransport, the camps in Calais, or in the courtrooms of Baltimore.

For her part, KIND President Wendy Young never stops seeing that little girl in the red velvet dress and braids trying to see over the wooden courtroom table. When she went to speak to her that day, she could see how afraid she was. She asked her the name of her doll. “Baby baby doll,” the girl told her.

“Two years later we got her special immigrant juvenile status for abused, abandoned or trafficked children,” Young says. “In the end she got permanent residence.” And that’s the difference lawyers can make to desperate, frightened children.


*Editor’s Note: US KIND was an Unbound Philanthropy grantee 2014-15; Coram, CELC, and Just for Kids Law are all current grantees.