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How Do You Teach 6-Year-Olds Their Legal Rights?

Good morning.

Every Tuesday and Friday, Lindsay Toczylowski visits the Long Beach Convention Center, where she gathers small groups of children, some as young as 6, for a 45-minute lesson.

She’s not there to teach the ABCs. She’s there to educate them about their legal rights.

Toczylowski is an immigration lawyer. Her students are migrants who crossed the southwestern border without a parent.

Since April, the convention center has been housing children, many of them Central Americans who fled violence and poverty. Transferred there from Border Patrol custody, they remain in Long Beach until their potential guardians, typically family members, submit the paperwork required by the federal government to prove that they are related and that the children will be safe.

During their stay at emergency shelters in Southern California, which can stretch days or weeks, the children participate in music, art and other activities. The goal of Toczylowski’s nonprofit legal-aid group, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, is to educate rather than entertain them.

“We want to make sure they know that they are not alone in their legal process,” said Toczylowski, who is the executive director of Immigrant Defenders and who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “No immigrants stand alone” in Spanish.

Credit…Renee Garcia, Immigrant Defenders Law Center

Each day, a team of lawyers and paralegals from the nonprofit group visits the convention center and the Pomona Fairplex, another temporary shelter for migrant children, to conduct “know your rights” presentations.

Having entered the country without permission, the children are in deportation proceedings. But if they follow the right steps, they could win the right to remain in the United States. The lawyers aim to deliver that message with a lively PowerPoint. One slide depicts a courtroom with cartoon figures of a judge, lawyers and a clerk. Then a child pops up on the screen.

“That is you, I tell the kids, and you are the most important person in the immigration courtroom,” Toczylowski said. “This is your chance to tell your story — why you came to the U.S. and what you are hoping for.”

The children learn they have the right to a court interpreter, and they are advised to have a lawyer by their side. Immigrant Defenders helps connect them with lawyers.

Attending every court date, the children are told, gives them the best shot at winning asylum or a visa that would put them on the path to permanent U.S. residency. But if they miss a hearing, a judge can order their deportation in absentia.

“We drive home that point by asking them what happens if one team doesn’t show up for a soccer game: It loses,” she said. “In court, showing up for your hearings doesn’t guarantee you win. But if you don’t show up, you will automatically lose, like the soccer team.”

The team has briefed hundreds of children, including those quarantined because they tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival at the convention center.

To ensure that sponsors of the children are also aware of the legal process, Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, has been training the case managers who handle the minors’ reunification with the adults receiving them.

“We are going to have thousands of kids with immigration cases going on for years,” said Kimberley Plotnik, program director at Esperanza. “It’s not over once they leave the shelters.”

Most of the children know they are in Long Beach, and some even tell Toczylowski that the city would be called “playa larga” in Spanish. They tell her that they prefer being at the convention center rather than a border facility, where they sleep on the ground, with only a wafer-thin sheet to cover them. The food is much better, too, they report.

Toczylowski often shares with the migrants that she has children their age, Maya, 11 and Santiago, 6.

As Mother’s Day approached, she couldn’t stop thinking about a little girl she had met. The 7-year-old child from Central America had been carrying a cellphone, where she had her mother’s contact information stored as she traveled north. Agents who processed her after she was intercepted at the border kept the device, and she had not memorized the number.

Toczylowski recalled her sharing the only thing she knew: “My mommy lives where it snows.”

Later, the little girl’s eyes filled with tears, and she asked, “Will I get adopted? Will I stay here forever?”

About 10 days later, she was reunited with her mother in the Midwest.

Compiled by Jonathan Wolfe

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