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Madison immigration attorney Erin Barbato noticed early this year that more unaccompanied minors were being referred to her for pro bono representation.

“I wasn’t sure why at first,” Barbato said Thursday.

It wasn’t long before the unprecedented influx of unaccompanied minors across the U.S. border became front-page news, upending hopes of immigration reform and miring the issue in a new round of politics.

More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have entered the United States illegally since Oct. 1, threatening to exhaust federal agency budgets, the New York Times reports. And children 12 and under are the fastest growing group among them, the Pew Research Center reported this week.

Barbato teaches a Humanitarian Law track dealing with juvenile, asylum, human trafficking and domestic violence immigration cases as an adjunct to the Immigration Justice Clinic at University of Wisconsin Law School. Students working with the clinic are assisting her in handling the unaccompanied minor immigration cases.

Barbato said she has six open cases referred last year through agencies like the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago that involve clients as young as 13 up to one who turned 19 while his case was pending.

“Some come alone because their parents already are here and some because their parents abandoned them or were murdered,” Barbato said. “They really don’t have a choice. They were alone in their country for some reason.”

Originally from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, the unaccompanied minors crossed the border in Texas or Arizona, she said. All have been placed with family members in Wisconsin by the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Barbato said. Some families knew a relative was on the way, others did not, she said.

Most of the youths were fleeing violence in their home countries, particularly gang violence, Barbato said. Girls, for whom Pew tracked the steepest jump in unaccompanied border crossings, may be fleeing sexual abuse, she said.

Gang violence in Honduras is so extreme and pervasive that the Obama administration is considering allowing youth to be screened in that country for entry to the United States as refugees, reports the New York Times.

As the August recess looms, Congress is politicking over President Barack Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to cover caring for the minors while their cases are adjudicated, increased transportation and others costs, and boosted border enforcement efforts.

News of plans to shelter children has provoked angry protests in some cities. And the political fallout for governors, mayors and other local officials is making even some dependably Democratic supporters squeamish about hosting the children.

The city of Madison has identified two possible sites to house unaccompanied children, Mayor Paul Soglin has said. He was responding to a plea from Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive who is now a regional director with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an agency whose budget is hard-hit by the demands of caring for the unaccompanied minors. Falk also has contacted officials in Milwaukee.

The city would have no responsibilities for the facility and there appear to be no significant negatives, other than “being criticized by xenophobes,” Soglin told the Wisconsin State Journal.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, meanwhile, joined five other Republican governors in a letter criticizing Obama’s handling of the situation and expressing concern that “there will be significant numbers who will end up using the public schools, social services and health systems largely funded by the states.” 

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos joined three other state legislators in appealing to the federal government to stop searching for places in Wisconsin to house the children.

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"While we understand this situation requires compassion, we believe it is in the best interest of the minors to be relocated near our nation's southern border, allowing for prompt reunification of families," the letter reads.

Barbato said she did not know enough about prospective Wisconsin shelter sites for the unaccompanied minors to comment on efforts to house them in the state. She added that conditions in immigration “detention” centers often are very difficult and that people detained under immigration law typically have been convicted of crimes.

“These children need to be afforded due process of law. If that means that they need to separate them across the country, then they should do it. And they need to make sure the children are protected in whatever facility they are held in,” Barbato said.

Finding a way for the youths to stay in the United States legally is difficult under current immigration law, she said.

Because family members with whom the new arrivals are reuniting may be more distant than parents or themselves undocumented, many cannot petition for the youths to be allowed to stay legally in the U.S., she said.

The youth typically do not qualify as refugees, who must be certified as such in their home country, Barbato said. And many cannot be certified as victims of human trafficking or other crimes, which would make them eligible for a visa. Some may be able to pursue visas as abandoned juveniles, she said.

Barbado said she favors a temporary protective status for the juveniles, a change in immigration law being advanced by New York state officials.

For now, most of the unaccompanied minors are taking steps to be able to stay in the U.S., according to news reports. The process is difficult and the government is not obligated to provide legal counsel, the National Journal reports. Many children will have to rely on whatever legal assistance is available privately at no charge.

While some analysts say most of the unaccompanied minors eventually will be deported, Barbato says her clients have no one to go home to. “There’s no safe place for them to be,” she said.

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