Las Vegas Sun

August 25, 2019

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Children fleeing violence have protectors in Las Vegas

Bernstein Children's Rights Program

L.E. Baskow

Michael Kagan as a UNLV Professor of Law and Immigration Clinic Director shows off a handprint of a person helped by immigration lawyers as UNLV formally launches the Edward M. Bernstein and Associates Children’s Rights Program on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.

Bernstein Children's Rights Program

Senator Harry Reid speaks on the necessity of immigration law practice as UNLV formally launches the Edward M. Bernstein and Associates Children's Rights Program on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Launch slideshow »

How to Help

“I would like to encourage everybody who wants to be a part of something important and change somebody’s life to be part of it,” Claudia Noriega-Bernstein said. “Every lawyer in town should be donating time and money, every privileged family that doesn’t go paycheck by paycheck should see this as an opportunity to give back.”

• Donate to and select the Immigration Clinic in the drop box.

• Volunteer: The program is looking for interpreters to help the pro bono lawyers communicate clearly with the children.

Program dedication attracted high-profile attendees

Several dignitaries were on hand for the dedication of the Edward M. Bernstein & Associates Children’s Rights Program, including former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, law professor and Immigration Clinic Director Michael Kagan, Nevada Regent Sam Lieberman and Tom Thomas of the Thomas & Mack Co.

In El Salvador, a 9-year-old girl lived with her great-grandmother. Although gang violence flooded the streets in her home country, she felt protected by the woman.

She heard the stories of gangs kidnapping girls, stealing their organs, filling their corpses with money and sending thank-you notes to their parents for their children’s donation. But her great-grandmother was tough.

When family sent her north, they told her that her great-grandmother was poor and couldn’t afford to take care of her anymore. She could live with her parents in Las Vegas.

But when she arrived, her parents told her the truth.

“Her great-grandmother, who had played with her and raised her and tried to protect her, she had been shot and murdered,” said Michael Kagan, law professor and immigration clinic director at UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.

This story is an excerpt from a disposition given by one of hundreds of unaccompanied children that UNLV’s Immigration Clinic helps, Kagan said. Threatened with closure by the expiration of federal funding, the clinic recently received a $250,000 donation from attorney Edward M. Bernstein to continue its work.

“Unfortunately, the AmeriCorps (grant) that let us start this work has ended,” Kagan said. “And every month this year, I’ve been on a national conference call hearing about how other programs like ours have been winding down and stopping their work.

“That’s why this gift matters. We will not be winding down.”

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras make up Central America’s violent Northern Triangle. Nearly 100,000 unaccompanied children fled their home countries and arrived in the United States between October 2013 and July 2015, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan organization focusing on foreign policies that affect the United States.

“In El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala, the MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang are relentless,” Kagan said. “The threats keep coming. Eventually, families send their children north. They’re called unaccompanied children because they make those journeys alone.

“They travel through Mexico alone, they walk for days alone. They ride a notorious train called ‘The Beast’ alone. They deal with organized criminals alone, until they reach the United States border.”

In 2014, UNLV’s Immigration Clinic was one of seven organizations — and the only law school — that received an AmeriCorps grant to provide legal defense for unaccompanied youth fleeing abuse and violence in Central America.

On Nov. 1, federal funding from the grant expired, not just for the law school but around the nation. That forced many programs that offer representation for unaccompanied children to shut their doors.

The donation from Bernstein & Associates allows UNLV’s program to continue for the next five years under the name of Edward M. Bernstein & Associates Children’s Rights Program.

Bernstein’s wife, Claudia Noriega-Bernstein, emigrated from Peru 25 years ago.

At 11 years old, Noriega-Bernstein witnessed first-hand the effects of terrorism on a community. A bomb planted by a terrorist group exploded at a playground, leaving a 5-year-old girl with a disfigured face.

During a visit to her grandfather’s office, Noriega-Bernstein saw the young girl as she was being adopted by an American couple in her home country. They were filling out paperwork for facial reconstruction surgery.

“I remember that little girl. I’ll never be able to forget her face. That for me was a purpose. One day, I’m going to be able to do something so there are no more kids like this one,” Noriega-Bernstein said. “These kids are in a terribly dangerous place, then somebody else is making the decisions for them to go somewhere else. Nobody is giving them an explanation, then they arrive in a country they’re not familiar with.”

“They never have a choice. Until they sit in front of a lawyer who says, ‘What do you want? What do you need? Tell me your story. I’m going to listen to you.’ ”

As of August 2016, there were 1,112 deportation cases pending against unaccompanied children in the Las Vegas Immigration Court by the Department of Homeland Security, according to the Boyd School of Law website.

“Right now in our clinic, we have 108 open cases of children who arrived to the United States alone,” Kagan said. “Some of them know what a dead body looks like after a person has been shot or stabbed. Some of the girls have been raped. Some have been told that they had to date a gang member or die.

“Some of our younger clients have made holiday cards for our lawyers. They write: ‘Carnal Mi Guarda’ (my protector) in crayon or marker. They’re kids.”

Despite the hundreds of children the program helps, more than 400 unaccompanied children do not have representation in Las Vegas, according to Kagan.

For the program to serve all the unaccompanied children who do not have a lawyer in court with them, it needs more money, more pro bono lawyers and more interpreters.

“I think it’s so important that we all work together,” Noriega-Bernstein said. “We’re not working together for the kids from El Salvador or Guatemala; we’re working together for our future, because children are our future.”