DALLAS — Bill Holston has heard the horror stories for years.
"We've had clients that have had family members murdered, parents murdered, brothers and sisters murdered," he said.
"Just today we heard a story from someone that a cousin had been killed by the gangs and she was now scared," he said. "A few weeks ago while screening the children at a shelter, one of the little girls told me it was difficult to sleep because of the sound of gunfire in their neighborhood."
Holston is the executive director of the Dallas-based non-profit Human Rights Initiative. It was founded in 2000 to work with immigrant survivors of violence. He has spent much of the last decade representing children who come to America alone.
In the last few months, the number of unaccompanied kids crossing the border has skyrocketed. Shelters are overflowing and courts are backlogged.
Some of these children can eventually be granted asylum, but it's a long legal road. It's a road even scholarly experts like UT Dallas political scientist Dr. Banks Miller wouldn't want to navigate alone, like some are forced to do.
"It is very complicated," Miller said. "The laws here are incredibly convoluted. It's hard for people who live in this country and study it for a living to understand it, so you can only imagine the situation that these children are in."
To claim asylum, an immigrant must show they've been persecuted or have a "well-founded fear of persecution if they are sent back," Miller explained.
"And that persecution has to be linked to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in another group," he said.
There are specific protections for children, but there are a lot of legal hurdles to overcome, Miller said.
"And many of these children won't be represented by attorneys," he said. "So, they'll have no way of getting direction with respect to being able to make these kind of claims."
Holston says a child going into immigration court without an attorney "is just an unacceptable idea."
"Some will not have legal remedies available, but they ought to have advice," he said.
Since news broke that Dallas could soon be home to a temporary shelter, the phones at the Human Rights Initiative have been ringing a lot. Holston is thankful.
"So, we're already getting phone calls from lawyers and law firms and psychologists," he said.
Holston said he's beginning to talk to the Dallas Bar Association and other non profits about offering continuing legal education to train lawyers about the process of immigration courts and to tell them how to properly screen the children to see if they might qualify as an asylum case.
Holston said legal help and emotional counseling could be the two biggest needs for this population. He's glad some in Dallas are already reaching out to help out.
"Despite what the loudest voices seem to say, Americans are passionate people and I think wherever you fall in the immigration debate, your heart goes out to children," he said.