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Legal group assists young immigrants

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The young immigrants who come to America undocumented — even those who did so because they had been neglected, fled persecution or were taken through the sex trade from their own country — are not entitled to an attorney.

But law practitioner Mercedes Cano, director of Centro Comunitario, is working to help them.

“These children are lost, are traumatized or are forgotten,” said Liz Cordoba, a third-year student at CUNY Law School who is working with Cano.

At a breakfast last Thursday at Nieves Restaurant, at 82-22 Northern Blvd. in Jackson Heights, Cano raised funds and awareness for the Juvenile Justice Project, which currently steers young immigrants to lawyers and hopes to eventually be able to provide legal representation itself.

City Council members Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Julissa Ferraras (D-East Elmhurst), Queens County Civil Court Judge Carmen Velasquez and faculty and students at CUNY Law School attended the breakfast. Cano does occasional legal counseling for Dromm and Ferreras.

“The problem that Mercedes is trying to address is really very, very serious,” said Dromm.

Cano opened Centro Comunitario, which has a P.O. Box in Flushing, in 1999 and since then has been holding workshops on immigration, housing, criminal and family law. Last year two CUNY law students approached Cano, saying they wanted to do something to benefit the immigrant community.

Given that Dromm had a law passed requiring the city Administration for Children’s Services to identify children in the system eligible for Special Immigration Juvenile Status, Centro Comunitario began a new program, the Juvenile Justice Project, in the fall to help the children who qualify.

“Any child who has been neglected, abused [or] abandoned, and returning that child back to the country can endanger the life of the child, that child receives a green card,” Cano said.

She said 8,000 children are taken into custody after crossing the border into the United States every year and 50 go to the juvenile section of New York’s Immigration Court. They are not entitled to legal representation but are four times more likely to be granted asylum if they have it.

The project consists of eight people, four law students and four lawyers who can actively represent people, but mostly the project does referrals. It is raising funds to be able to provide more representation.

Therese McNulty, spokeswoman for the project, said the breakfast raised around $1,500.

“This is really about investing in an idea, investing in a project that’s really going to impact our community,” Ferreras said.

Donations may be sent to Centro Comunitario at P.O. Box 8039 Flushing, NY or by going to its website at http://centrocomunitario.org.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 10:56 am, October 12, 2011
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