Shedding light on the Immigration Court-Public School Nexus in Proceedings for Unaccompanied Migrant Youth

Prof. Tracey Holland & Nicolas Villamil ’25

An unaccompanied migrant is a child who arrives at one of the United States’ borders without an adult with them. Typically, they arrive at the southern border. Their status stays with them even after they are united with a sponsor.

We rightfully hear a lot about the difficult realties they encounter attempting to journey to the United States as well as once they arrive. But while these situations are more than worthy of our attention and advocacy, it is only the beginning of an extremely challenging chapter for these children.

After reunification with their sponsor, their new life in the United States begins, at least for the time being. Immediately, appearing in court becomes their number one priority. Whether the child has been reunified with a distant relative, a family member that acts in a parental role, or a biological parent, their goal is to assure their life in the United States. Needless to say, this is a difficult process.

To learn more about it, Prof. Holland and I watched New York City immigration court on numerous occasions, in-person and on Webex. We learned that because of long waitlists at pro-bono organizations and steep prices from immigration lawyers, defendants would frequently appear without representation and had to request continuances from the judges. We also learned that these continuances are limited, and that at some point, these cases must continue, with our without representation. Such a distinction, the numbers show, can all but decide an unaccompanied minor’s case.

This caused us to focus even more on our original question: what role do schools play in all this? By interviewing a former judge, attorneys, employees of pro-bono organizations, and an english language teacher, we learned that this was a worthwhile question, one that we should continue to ask.

Unaccompanied children are an extremely vulnerable demographic, making the support system that school can provide important. At school, they can learn English and about the legal process they are a part of, and they can find support in their teachers and school guidance counselor. Through school, they can interact with their judge in a non-confrontational manner by presenting a certificate of accomplishment at school—they can become more confident. Through school, kids can receive assistance from social workers in finding legal representation. And in some judges’ courts, proof of enrollment in school excuses them from needing to appear in court at all, as long as they have a sponsor or attorney to represent them.