The Woman and Others Giving Refugee Kids Free Lawyers*
By Jaime Alfaro
Defending children from deportation
Alexandra Rizio has long fought for refugees in her professional life, starting as a volunteer with the Refugee and Immigrant Fund in Queens, New York. Today, she is a senior staff attorney at Safe Passage Project, where she also serves as co-coordinator of the Unaccompanied Latin American Minor Project (ULAMP), a collaboration with City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice that provides pro bono legal assistance to children in deportation proceedings.
In 2014, when parts of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala saw a brutal uptick in violence and poverty, many children fled, some without an adult to shepherd them to safety. After making it across the U.S. border, says Rizio, children often are detained immediately, then sent to foster homes or relatives elsewhere. And their journeys are just beginning.
“We’ll show up on their first day of court with volunteer attorneys and translators,” Rizio says.
“If it weren’t for organizations like Safe Passage and others, they would literally be on their own facing the judge.”
Since ULAMP teamed up with Safe Passage in 2014, attorneys have represented 830 children in New York state and spared 208 children from deportation.
An angel to immigrants on the border
For years, Enrique Morones helped Mexican immigrants by leaving water bottles, food, and blankets along the California border, through the Imperial Valley desert and mountainous regions of San Diego County.
Then in 2001, Morones, then an executive with the San Diego Padres, left his job and took his involvement to a higher level: He established the volunteer organization Border Angels and began speaking out across the country for immigration reform.
Since then, Morones has seen the U.S.-Mexico border transform into a national flashpoint for immigration, from protests to the formation of vigilante militias that threaten to shoot people crossing the border. Over the past 18 years, more than 6,000 people have died making the dangerous trek.
Meanwhile, Border Angels has expanded its mission by providing food to immigrants at day-laborer sites and, with the help of Border Patrol, organizing “Opening the Door of Hope” events that enable families who are separated by the border to visit.
Since the election, volunteer interest in Border Angels has soared.
“People are scared,” Morones says.
“But our organization is standing by [migrants] to make sure they’re protected.”
Bringing necessities to young refugees in need
In 2014, a few years into the Syrian civil war, there were 1 million people in refugee camps in Jordan. That same year, Gader Ibrahim visited one of those camps and saw children sleeping in the snow and wandering idle and scared. So she organized blanket and toy drives and personally delivered the supplies to children on both sides of the border. After the war in Syria escalated, she moved from Jordan to the United States and, in 2015, founded Operation Refugee Child (ORC), a program that delivers backpacks full of necessities to refugee camps in Greece.
“We’re focusing on the kids and giving them backpacks because we know they have nothing and they have a long way to go,” Ibrahim says.
Ibrahim stages part of her effort in Athens and two other Greek cities, home to large refugee camps for people fleeing to Europe and Canada. There, Ibrahim and her team of four volunteers distribute backpacks with items like toys, blankets, toothbrushes, protein bars, raincoats, and underwear. And through its Hope Box program, ORC has sent 10,000 pounds of donations, most in the form of food. To date, Ibrahim and her team have given 6,000 backpacks in the United States and overseas.