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Attorneys Face Challenges While Working With Migrant Children Separated From Parents


The Trump administration appears to have backed away for now from its zero tolerance and family separation border policies. The months those policies have been active have seen a new population brought into U.S. government shelters - babies and toddlers. Officially they are known as tender age. Some of them know their parents' names. Some don't. Some speak Spanish. Some don't yet speak at all.

Pamela Florian is an attorney with the nonprofit Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona. And we read an account of her experience working with these children on The New Yorker's website, so we called her to learn more. Pamela Florian, welcome.

PAMELA FLORIAN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Let me ask you to walk me through the process of just what happens when you first meet these very young children. How does that conversation unfold?

FLORIAN: So we really try to build trust. It takes a really long time. So we take toys with us. We sometimes take coloring books. And we first start asking questions about their days, how their days are going. What cartoons are they watching? And then eventually we start moving into, well, what is your mom's name? Or what is your father's name? Sometimes they don't even know their names.

KELLY: You come at this as an attorney, not as a social worker, not as a therapist. How do you figure out how to represent a child when these children may be in some cases too young to talk, much less figure out how they want their legal case to proceed?

FLORIAN: Our duty as attorneys is to represent the express wishes of the child. We do ask, do you miss your family? Do you miss your mother? Do you want to be with your mother and father? We ask those questions, and we also want to make sure that they will be safe. So it is a long process.

KELLY: Do you have enough attorneys to represent all the kids?

FLORIAN: We do not have enough attorneys. We need more.

KELLY: Is there a story you can tell of a child that you've helped?

FLORIAN: I had a case of a 7-year-old who was at the shelter for a couple months. We wanted to help him reunite with his family. It just took us a really long time to find the family to be able to communicate with them. And we also had some concerns as to if he actually came with a parent or who did he come with. And because he's 7 years old and he was so young, it was very difficult to get all of those pieces together.

KELLY: And when you say it's hard to track down the parents, why? I mean, what are the obstacles for you?

FLORIAN: So finding the parent's name, trying to find their contact information - if the parent was already deported, we need to find their phone number in their home country. That can be rural areas. So the communication is very difficult at times. Sometimes we cannot find where the parent is detained, and that takes a little bit of time as well. It's just a very complicated process.

KELLY: Was that boy - that 7-year-old boy reunited with his family?

FLORIAN: He is in the process of reuniting right now. We were able finally to communicate with his family.

KELLY: This work must take a toll on you and your team as well.

FLORIAN: That is correct. Working with very young children is heartbreaking. It takes an emotional toll on me as an attorney and all of our staff. But we have to do it. We know that these children need someone by their side. They need someone to help them throughout this complicated immigration system. And our focus is really to help the children.

KELLY: Pamela Florian - she's an attorney with the nonprofit Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. Thanks very much for your time.

FLORIAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.