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Originally published October 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 17, 2008 at 1:35 AM

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Microsoft set to help the littlest immigrants

With some of the biggest legal heavy hitters in the country and Angelina Jolie as a spokesperson, Microsoft today launched a new initiative to provide free legal services to illegal-immigrant children facing possible deportation.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Partnered with some of the nation's legal powerhouses — and with actress Angelina Jolie as a spokesperson — Microsoft today launched an initiative to provide free legal help to hundreds of illegal-immigrant children who are on their own and facing deportation.

Through Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the Redmond company and a group of law firms in nine cities will spend about $14.5 million over the next three years on an immigration legal-defense program for children, similar to a partnership Microsoft has had with local attorneys for years.

"While there are many worthy causes and cases, we wanted to focus on children who have been separated from their families and are in particular needy circumstances," said Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft.

"For children who have no one to speak on their behalf, a lawyer is a lifeline to protection."

Last year, about 8,000 illegal-immigrant children with no official adult supervision were processed in immigration court. They came from all over the world — the majority from Central America — some fleeing untold horror and abuse.

Crossing illegally into the U.S., some were separated from parents or guardians. Others were smuggled in alone by coyotes, people who help immigrants cross the border illegally for a fee.

Once here, some turned to the Department of Homeland Security seeking asylum. But most were picked up by immigration authorities at U.S. borders and airports or came to the attention of immigration authorities after running afoul of the law.

About 215 of these children were in Washington state.

Unlike adults, they are not placed in U.S. detention centers but in juvenile shelters scattered across the country. The youngest — sometimes just 3 or 4 years old — are placed in foster care.

Altogether in Washington state, there are 84 beds in foster homes and shelters set aside for the detained minors.

In the end, some are reunited with family members here in the U.S., but many are deported back to their home countries. ICE spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said that when a minor is returned home, officials work with the consulate of that country to locate a family member there. If one can't be contacted, she said, ICE works with the foreign government to take custody of the child.

Microsoft already helps to fund a program called Volunteer Advocates for Immigrant Justice, which screens adults and children to determine their eligibility for asylum or other legal status, and trains attorneys to represent them as they work through the system.

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Because of it, Washington is the only state in the country where every immigrant child is represented by an attorney in immigration court, Microsoft's Smith said. KIND would immediately expand that to eight other large U.S. cities: Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, New York, Newark, N.J., Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Of the 8,000 unaccompanied illegal-immigrant kids who come into contact with immigration authorities last year, 3,100 were in these nine cities, and two-thirds of them had no legal representation.

Those children are the focus of KIND.

Smith talked of a 15-year-old boy who fled North Korea with his father but became separated from him in Canada. He crossed into the U.S. and was apprehended.

Lydia Tamez, associate general counsel for Microsoft, told of two brothers, ages 3 and 5, who crossed the border with their mother but became separated from her after she was detained. The boys were found wandering the freeway, naked and begging for food.

Another local case involved a 3-year-old who became separated from her aunts in California. When she appeared before an immigration judge and was asked how old she was, she raised three tiny fingers.

"Some of them are the innocent," Tamez said.

Typically, once such children come to the attention of immigration officials here, they are turned over to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which contracts with various community groups to arrange housing for them.

Betsy Ellington, manager of international foster care at Catholic Community Services, said most of the children it places in foster care are preteens.

Some are running away from abuse and torture in their home countries, she said. Many know how to reach relatives; the youngest ones might have names and phone numbers on a piece of paper in their shoes.

While many may end up with relatives here, she said, "some of them just want to go back home."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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