Around a dozen people with flags and signs took a stand on Interstate 80 at a rest stop east of Grand Island, joining hundreds of other demonstrations being organized around the country.
“We’re out here protesting this current illegal immigration problem with all these juveniles, to include the ones that were already here that are adults,” say protester Jess Valdez.
Federal officials say of the 57,000 kids who came to the US unaccompanied in the last year, around 200 ended up in Nebraska.
“Most of them are sent to live with family members for up to 18 months before they can meet with an immigration judge to determine if they have a legal basis for remaining in the country,” says Rob Rutland-Brown, Executive Director of Justice for Our Neighbors, a legal service that works with low-income immigrants.
JFON has an office in Omaha, and recently started working with a church in Grand Island to help immigrants navigate the legal system there. Rutland-Brown says most of these children are fleeing gangs and home violence in Central America, and their numbers have been steadily increasing.
But Nebraska U.S. Senator Mike Johanns says the increase is due partly to child-smuggler profits, and says Department of Justice reports cite other reasons.
“The vast, vast majority of minors surveyed said they came to the border because of a belief that our immigration laws now allow them to live here because they are minors,” says Johanns.
Johanns is pushing for law changes meant to speed up hearings for child migrants and get them back to their own countries.
“It does everything to treat these minors humanely, but expedites the process of returning the kids to the country from which they came,” he says of the recently introduced HUMANE Act.
Legal advocates worry the children, who are not given attorneys for immigration court, won’t get a fair hearing when many are eligible to stay through things like visas or asylum.
“You know that if they’re making this very dangerous journey they’re desperate and so we feel it’s really important to reach out to them and to help them with their legal case, but also help to show them that there are people here that care about them,” says Rutland-Brown.
He says JFON’s short term goals include getting attorneys to represent kids waiting for their hearings. An attorney at JFON Nebraska says as of June 30 of this year, the Omaha Immigration Court, which covers Iowa and Nebraska, had 406 juvenile cases pending - some represented, some not. It’s not known, but unlikely, that all of those cases are unaccompanied child migrants from the recent surge.
Nebraska’s three congressional representatives have signed on to legislation requiring Health and Human Services to give states notice when unaccompanied minors are to be placed there. It’s a companion bill to one Johanns and Nebraska U.S. Senator Deb Fischer have in the Senate.