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Once alone and undocumented, teen finds family in immigration court

Minors who enter the United States alone and without proper documents face a circuitous path when seeking relief after they are stopped and detained by U.S. immigration officials.

Unlike in criminal court proceedings, the federal government is not required to provide lawyers to defendants in immigration court who cannot afford them — not even children, meaning many undocumented minors are left to navigate the daunting legal network alone.

And that’s tough work, considering legal scholars have criticized U.S. immigration laws for being more complex than U.S. tax codes.

“It would be impossible for many unaccompanied minors who have a language barrier and are completely unfamiliar with the legal system in the United States to be able to represent to the court the reasons why they’re eligible for any relief whatsoever,” said Rachael De Chacón, an attorney in New York.

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Graphic by Lisa Overton/NewsHour Weekend

In 2015, more than 19,000 unaccompanied immigrants under age 21 filed new requests to stay in the U.S., and of that share, 62 percent didn’t have a lawyer, according to researchers at Syracuse University.

Naturally, having adequate legal representation makes a big difference before a judge.

Last year, 73 percent of immigrants under 21 with lawyers were allowed to stay, versus only 15 percent of children without lawyers.

For that lot, sometimes the only recourse is to rely on total strangers for help. And sometimes, that help comes through.

See our full report on the thousands of unaccompanied, undocumented minors fleeing brutal violence in Central America and attempting to enter the US:

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