A WAAY 31 I-Team investigation closely examines one facet of the illegal immigration issue.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2016, nearly 16 percent of the nearly 1.2 million people who got their U.S. permanent resident cards – called green cards – were younger than 16. Eight percent were 16 years old to 20. The vast majority, 76 percent, were adults 21 and older.
Many of those younger people come to the U.S. southern border from Central America. Some of those cases wind up on the desk of a lawyer here in North Alabama.
An attorney in Sand Mountain is dedicating most of his effort to helping children who try to escape impoverished living conditions by making their way to the U.S. The lawyer helps those minors become permanent U.S. residents with a pathway to citizenship.
Inside the law office in Marshall County, the battle over immigration really hits home: a girl proudly holding her new U.S. permanent resident card.
“I understand we have to protect our borders. I get that,” Brad Watson told WAAY 31 News. Watson practices law with his wife in Albertville. “A lot of them come from Guatemala or Mexico. We get a few from Honduras."
Up to 80 percent of Watson & Watson's business is immigration work. Ninety percent of that: immigrant children with an average age of 14. Watson works to help the children who cross the border.
Despite the trending topic, Watson told us children detained at the U.S. border did not start with President Trump. “This issue with separation at the border and children coming either with parents or with siblings has been going on for years,” Watson said. “Most of them that I’ve seen, they may stay in detention for a week, sometimes a little less, sometimes two weeks."
Watson & Watson focuses on cases called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status or SIJS. Most of the firm's SIJS cases never involve parents because they stayed behind in their home countries.
“We've been doing them for at least five years,” he explained. “And this isn’t anything new. It’s become, I guess, in the spotlight lately.”
SIJS is a process a child can go through to become a lawful permanent resident. That opens the door to becoming a U.S. citizen. It can be a long path that often starts in desperation.
"Usually, it's the poverty," Watson explained. “Most of them are in extreme poverty such that we, I don’t think we really see, at least in our community.”
Watson makes it clear a typical Tennessee Valley neighborhood is nothing like what his child clients are trying to escape. He says our garden sheds are like mansions compared to their shacks. No electricity. No running water. And not enough to eat. He says the kids spend much of their time trying to scrounge up enough food simply to survive.
"A lot of them come here or are mostly sent here by their parents because they are not able to take care of them," Watson told us.
He explained parents can become so hopeless, they're willing to send their own children on a potentially deadly trek involving criminals, drug cartels, sex-traffickers, kidnappers and cold-blooded killers along the way.
"The things that they go through just to try to get here and try to better their lives,” he said. “I can’t even imagine the things they see. Some of them don’t ever make it."
For the ones who do make it, another journey begins. Watson says the kids usually have someone waiting for them in the U.S. like a cousin, uncle or godmother. He says detention at the U.S. border is fully expected.
“They’re either caught or thy present themselves,” he said. “They just go up and present themselves to border patrol or ICE. And at that point, they’re taken into custody. And if there’s someone to release them to, typically, they’re released to someone"
Safely in the U.S., the life-threatening part of their long journey is over. Once Watson's firm gets a case, one challenge remains, though: a ticking clock.
But, something that could buy time for his young clients: packed dockets in an overloaded immigration court system and continuances from one court date to another.
“But our success rate is very very high,” Watson said. “Almost perfect I would say, if we have time. That’s the biggest issue.”
To Brad Watson, his work has nothing to do with politics. Watson says he takes pride helping children have better lives.
“We’re looking at each individual and their story and knowing that we’re able to help these children and hopefully give them some sort of future in this country that they can better
Watson says once children make it to the U.S., they face a new world of challenges. Many are shy. New culture, a new language and going into school -- sometimes for the first time -- can be difficult at best. Watson helps guide the kids and strongly advises them to do everything right and stay out of trouble.