At the young age of 11, a time of innocence for most youth, “Carlos” was arrested by Honduran police because his father was suspected of a crime. The police jailed the young boy, tortured and beat him in a failed effort to find out where his father was hiding. Carlos didn’t know. 

Even though he was eventually released, the local gangs began harassing Carlos. They knew that, since the police had already beaten him, they could pummel with impunity. Ignored by police, Carlos became easy prey to harassment and extortion.

Carlos fled, hoping to find safety with his mother in Baton Rouge. After turning himself in, authorities here reunited Carlos and his mother in February.

As the oldest child of five, after “Maria” turned 17 it was time to move out of both her home and her country. Drug gangs competed for her attention.  She was told she needed to choose sides, and be claimed by one of the rival gang leaders as his girlfriend or else.

Rather than face an indentured future, Maria fled with the hopes of reuniting with her mother in Baton Rouge. As she neared the border, she was kidnapped and held for ransom.  Despite her mother’s payment of $4,000, the kidnappers kept her captive. One night, they got drunk and Maria saw her chance.  She gathered the other children imprisoned in the warehouse, and ran for the United States, hoping to find a border agent before her kidnappers found her.

 Both Maria and Carlos, two of more than 50,000 young immigrants who have recently crossed the borders in the United States, are now in Baton Rouge, with their mothers and enrolled in school.   

To help unaccompanied refugee children seeking protection in the United States, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge has established the Louisiana Esperanza Project and received initial pledges of $310,000 over the next four years.

“The children at our border are some of the most vulnerable children on our continent,” said Winifred Reilly, who with her husband Kevin Reilly Jr., helped kickoff the project with a challenge grant. “Their parents have the same hopes and dreams as we all have for our own.”

The project follows a statement by the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops issued earlier this month in which the bishops urged protection of these vulnerable children and respect for their families. And David Aguillard, executive director of CCDBR, said Louisiana Esperanza follows the long tradition of the U.S. Catholic Church helping immigrants fully integrate into our nation’s melting pot. “Catholics in particular should help these children. Immigrant Catholics were at one time unwelcome in our nation and considered a threat to our way of life. Such intolerance is just as wrong today as it was last century.”

Louisiana Esperanza will provide legal services available under U.S. law that not only protect the children’s lives but assure their sanctuary in the United States remains documented. Research shows that one of two things is certain for children who lack representation: they miss their court dates and disappear unsafely into our country or they are deported to the dangerous environments that led them to flee.

“Without our help (the children’s) choices are grim,” Aguillard said. “With your help they can petition for safety here in our community.”

Winifred and Kevin Reilly Jr. joined several CCDBR board members and Jennifer and Sean Reilly in funding the project and challenging the community to match their gifts.

Aguillard said that each of the 1,300 children who recently joined their families in Louisiana has the right to legal representation as the courts determine whether their lives would be in jeopardy if deported. If so, they are allowed to remain in the United States with their approved sponsor.

CCDBR is the only agency screening sponsors along the Gulf Coast from Tampa to Houston and the number of sponsors requesting services has nearly tripled in the past year to more than 100 per month,” Aguillard said. Of all the unaccompanied refugee children in Louisiana in past years, about 40 percent had counsel, Aguillard said. That has dropped to about 20 percent as the number of children has increased and is about half the national average. Regardless of whether the child stays, Aguillard said simply having an attorney makes a difference. For example in Louisiana:

Children without an attorney are 1.5 times more likely to be deported than those with.

Children with an attorney are four times more likely to voluntarily return home compared to those without.

Of children who fail to appear in court, 97 percent lack representation.

Because the public good and safety is increased when the children have representation, some cities have begun offering public defender services in immigration court. Such programs do not exist in Louisiana despite that in relation to its population, Louisiana has received a disproportionate share of unaccompanied children. It is ranked 10th in the nation of placements, yet 25th in total population. Other states in the top 10 placements include New York, Texas, California, Florida, Georgia … all of which are the most populous in the nation.

The funds from Esperanza will be used to expand CCDBR’s legal team and to recruit and train pro bono attorneys who can handle Louisiana custody and federal immigration law issues. Additionally, the agency will seek to hire more advocates to become accredited for immigration court.

“We estimate that of the approximately 1,300 children in Louisiana so far, at least 200 have viable claims to remain in the United States, and that number will grow,” Aguillard said. “Right now the courts are backed up until 2016. Then these cases will take several more years to determine, one-by-one, whether each child should be granted the right to remain safe and united with their sponsor families.”

Unlike criminal court, people in immigration proceedings have no right to a public attorney – not even children – and very few children can afford private counsel.

Aguillard estimates it would cost about $2 million to provide representation for 200 immigrants through the multi-year process, and commended the Reilly families for having the courage and foresight to step up now and challenge others to help.

“It’s important that those with strong cases immediately begin their legal process to assure they remain safe and their cases move as quickly as possible,” Aguillard said. “From our past experience, we know that when families like these have proper legal representation, they are engaged in the process.”

People wishing to donate to the fund can call Catholic Charities at 225-336-8700 or go to www.CatholicCharitiesBR.org to make an online donatio