Chicago Reader on Young Center's Benefit

Help the U. of C.'s Young Center help immigrant children
Aimee Levitt
Chicago Reader
April 22, 2014

On Sunday, the New York Times ran the chilling story of Noemi Álvarez Quillay, a 12-year-old girl who attempted, twice, to travel alone and without papers from her home in the southern highlands of Ecuador to join her parents in New York. The first time, she got as far as Nicaragua and then turned back. The second time, she made it all the way to Ciudad Juárez in Mexico where last month she and a coyote, a human smuggler, were apprehended. The authorities placed Noemi into a children's detention center where, a few days later, she hung herself.

Noemi was just one of the 60,000 unaccompanied immigrant children expected to arrive—or attempt to arrive—in the U.S. this year. That's three times as many as last year and ten times as many as the year before that. Many of the immigrants, like Noemi, come from Central America which has been suffering from drought.

Not many resources exist to help unaccompanied children navigate the immigration system. One of the few is the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights at the University of Chicago, which pairs children up with advocates who work to keep them from being deported and to find a place in America. Tonight the Young Center is hosting a benefit so it can keep doing its work. It will feature a the writer Anchee Min, herself an immigrant who was deported.

Most kids get "detention fatigue," explains Xiaorong Jajah Wu, a staff attorney at the Young Center, and tell their state-assigned lawyers that they want to be sent back to their home countries, even if that's not necessarily in their best interest. (There are currently no "best interest" laws on the books in the U.S. for child immigrants.) The Young Center works with both the kids and the lawyers to insure that whatever happens is best for the kid; if they do end up returning home, the center does a home study to make sure conditions are safe. The advocates also work with immigrant communities to find people to talk with the kids in their own languages and make them feel more comfortable.

Jajah Wu