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Clinic Students Advocate for Children Fleeing Gang Violence in Central America

Thursday, May 18, 2017

“It’s not difficult to comprehend the dire situation our clients face if we put ourselves in their shoes for even a second,” says Anjelica Mantikas '18, a student in the Law School’s in-house Child Advocacy Clinic. “Children growing up in Central America, in towns plagued by gang violence, view the world around them differently. Every day, they see gangs trying to recruit young boys and girls, and then see the dead bodies of those who refuse to comply. Worse still, they turn to the police in hopes of protection only to learn that the officers are working with the gangs for profit or self preservation.”

Mantikas and her fellow student clinicians are gaining vital lawyering skills as they advocate for children who have fled to the United States to escape atrocities perpetrated by gangs in the El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” says Professor Jennifer Baum, the Child Advocacy Clinic’s longtime director. “The rise of international criminal organizations such as MS-13 and MS-18 has fueled migration from Central America northward in record numbers. Tragically, it’s young people who are most at risk, as the gangs target teens and adolescents to recruit new members, young children to use in extortion plots, and girls to use for sex trafficking.”

Often young survivors of gang violence are eligible for a form of immigration relief that depends on the outcome of state family court proceedings, Professor Baum explains, so the clinic students practice in immigration court and family court simultaneously. Using interpreters, they collect evidence from abroad, prepare witnesses for trial, and make legal arguments under New York State law and immigration law.

“I’ve been able to help my clients with many aspects of their case, such as drafting affidavits and motions and filling out immigration paperwork,” Mantikas shares. “I’ve also gained amazing client interviewing and counseling experience prepping clients for their family court hearings.”

“Carefully drafted motions, prepared witnesses, and complete and translated documents all make it easier for the courts to do the difficult job of assessing our clients’ circumstances and safety,” Professor Baum says. “The more work our students put into presenting their case up front, the greater the chance of a favorable result, which is important because, once a young person turns 21, there are no second chances. Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is no longer available to them.”

With the clinic’s holistic approach to representation, client assistance often goes beyond legal work. “I help my clients with whatever they need,” says Amanda Salzano '17. “Sometimes they need help with school—how to finance post-secondary education or tutoring. Sometimes it’s much more serious than that. I recently had a client who was incarcerated. His father is deceased, and I knew his mother would be sitting alone at his sentencing. I went to sit with her and I let her cry on my shoulder and hold my hand.”

Salzano’s experience in the Child Advocacy Clinic has been formative. “Before I worked in the clinic, I really didn’t know what type of law I wanted to practice,” she says. “But I quickly fell in love with immigration law.” And her clinic clients have left an indelible impression. “One said to me ‘don't fear the future because, even if bad things happen, you will find the strength from within to get through it,’” Salzano says. “I wrote that down and carry it with me. It reminds me that humans are capable of surviving anything and that we have no clue how much strength is really inside us.”