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Undocumented Children Face Uphill Legal Battles In Las Vegas Courts

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Eric Gay/AP
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Immigrant children line up at a facility in Karnes City, Texas.

Two years ago, UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Law Center received a grant to hire two attorneys to focus on unaccompanied immigrant children.

At the same time, a national refugee agency reported that U.S. border control agencies took into custody 63,000 unaccompanied children between October 2013 and July 2014.

Some of these children had endured torturous conditions at the hands of armed gangs seeking territorial control. One study found two-thirds of these kids have no legal representation.

The federal Office of Refugee Settlement said that from October 2013 and last month, 483 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody and released to sponsors in Nevada.

Needless to say, the two attorneys hired here have been stretched thin. There is also now fear that money to pay them is running out.

Alissa Cooley and Katelyn Leese were featuredin a story in the April edition of Desert Companion, a magazine produced by Nevada Public Radio.

Leese said we're seeing an influx of unaccompanied children from Central America because of how dangerous life has become in many countries.

“The boys are being targeted for recruitment (by gangs)," she said, "The girls are being targeted for sexual exploitation. And even the younger kids, the ones who aren’t really of an age to be targeted for sex or recruitment, they see what’s going on and it terrifies them.”

The attorneys said the situation started about 10 years ago when many people couldn't make a living in countries like Honduras, following civil unrest and war.

To make money for the family, parents would come to the United States for work, leaving their children behind with grandparents or other family members.

But as gangs took over and the crime situation escalated, families wanted to be reunited. Sometimes the parents would send for their children, but other times the children would leave on their own.  

Cooley said it is not easy to handle the cases for several reason from a language barrier to school schedules. They are also a tiny part of a large law clinic but use the same resources as the rest of the lawyers there. 

For now, they're waiting to see if they'll get a grant to pay for their current case load. Cooley and Leese are no longer accepting new cases. They are trying to find attorneys who will work pro bono on any new cases. 

Katelyn Leese, attorney, Thomas & Mack legal clinic, UNLV;  Alissa Cooley, attorney, Thomas & Mack legal clinic, UNLV 

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.