The University of Chicago News Office
August 22, 2006 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
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University of Chicago Law School to house Immigrant Children’s Advocacy Project

maria woltjen
Maria Woltjen

The University of Chicago Law School and children’s rights lawyer Maria Woltjen have teamed up to expand the Immigration Children’s Advocacy Project, a national initiative that provides child protection advocates to unaccompanied immigrant children in federal custody.

Woltjen, director and founder of the program and newly appointed Lecturer in Law at the Law School, launched the project independently in 2003. She is now bringing it to the University of Chicago where law students will serve as child advocates to undocumented children in the United States without parents or legal guardians who were apprehended by immigration authorities.

“The University of Chicago is thrilled to add this new clinical project,” said Mark Heyrman, Clinical Professor of Law and Faculty Director of Clinical Programs. “In addition to providing a crucial service to very vulnerable clients, the project will enrich the legal education of our students by allowing them to see first hand how our immigration laws and policies affect children and learning how to use their legal skills on behalf of these children.”

Last year there were 7,787 such children detained in the United States coming from all corners of the world, but primarily Central America, Mexico, China and India. Most are teenagers — though there is the occasional 3- or 4-year-old — and have been transported by hired smugglers or have made the journey on their own. Almost always the youth are fleeing extreme poverty, political or religious persecution, child labor or abusive families.

“University of Chicago students will be bearing witness for these children,” said Woltjen, who previously served as director of the Children’s Advocacy Project, a division of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “These students are going to be the future lawyers and policy makers, and they will have the chance to learn about immigration from a very personal perspective.”

The role of child advocate is to identify and represent the child’s best interests while he or she is subject to deportation hearings, Woltjen said. Students will be assigned to serve as child advocate for an individual child either in federal custody or living with sponsors in the Chicago area.

The child advocate must be a second- or third-year law student; proficient in Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi or Gujarati; and committed to meeting with the child at least once a week at a shelter on the North Side of Chicago for the length of the case, typically two to six months.

Child advocates will be asked to identify and represent the child’s best interests, Woltjen said. Specifically, students must:

  • Recognize the child’s eligibility for relief from removal, including asylum and special visas for victims of trafficking, abuse and abandonment
  • Accompany the child to immigration court, Cook County juvenile court, meetings with United States government officials and meetings with consular officials from the child’s country of origin
  • Conduct legal research in cooperation with lawyers representing the child
  • Conduct factual research identifying the child’s presence in the United States
  • Research political and economic conditions of the child’s country of origin
  • Write advocacy briefs on behalf of the child
  • Advocate on the child’s behalf with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Department of Homeland Security and Executive Office for Immigration Review by requesting family reunification, less restrictive placement and/or access to services and legal representation.

Additionally, those involved with the project will develop recommendations on issues affecting unaccompanied immigrant children detained nationally. Students will work in teams to develop policy recommendations and explore collaboration with non-governmental organizations in countries with significant numbers of children traveling alone to the United States.

“This gives law students a real perspective on what is happening in the world, and allows them the opportunity to put their legal skills to work on an area of the law that is not yet developed,” Woltjen said. “Our existing immigration laws do not contemplate children as any different from adults so there is a lot of work to be done.”

Woltjen will work with eight to 10 law students at a time, allowing the project to expand from its current volunteer base. The Chicago shelter holds 54 children so, “there is always more work to be done,” Woltjen said.
Last modified at 07:05 PM CST on Sunday, February 11, 2007.

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