Tag Archives: unaccompanied minors

GUEST BLOG: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Maryland Closes Gap with Federal Law to Expand Courts’ Jurisdiction. By Michelle Mendez

25 Aug

This blog post was written by FOBR Michelle Mendez, Senior Managing Attorney at Immigrant Legal Service of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.MM

 

On April 8, 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law Chapter 96, which, through a small, technical fix that closes a gap between state and federal law, expands the jurisdiction of an equity court to include custody or guardianship of an immigrant child pursuant to a motion for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) factual findings. 2014Md. Laws, Chap. 96. The law expands the jurisdiction of the court by defining a child for the purposes of SIJS factual finding determinations in guardianship or custody proceedings as an unmarried individual who is not yet 21 years of age thus aligning the definition of child with the federal definition. The idea for this change in law arose from the experience of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Washington Immigration Legal Services staff as they continued to encounter youth with harrowing life situations that rendered them SIJS eligible but who were already 18 years old. This law goes into effect October 1, 2014, but some judges have already begun accepting cases of those who have already reached the age of 18.

 

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What is SIJS?

There are few groups more vulnerable than immigrant children who are SIJS-eligible. As we have seen with the recent surge of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America, many have arrived in the United States fleeing APphoto_Immigration Obamaa combination of violence, threats, natural disasters, human trafficking, child labor, and abuse, neglect, and abandonment from their families. Though SIJS-eligible, without competent counsel to guide them through the complexity of this family law and immigration law hybrid relief, these children face the constant threat of deportation and without legal status, access to student loans and work authorization, they face significant barriers to becoming stable, productive members of society. That is why it is imperative that we as attorneys know and understand SIJS.

A Special Immigrant Juvenile is an immigrant child who has been declared dependent on a juvenile court because a state court judge has determined that (1) his or her reunification with one or both parents is not viable due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment and (2) it is not in the best interest of the child to be returned to his or her home country. A juvenile court is defined as “a court located in the United States having jurisdiction under State law to make judicial determinations about the custody and care of juveniles,” and can include a juvenile court, family court, probate court, county court at law, or child welfare court. SIJS is the only area of immigration law that incorporates the best interest of the child principle to take into account the special needs of abused, abandoned, or neglected immigrant children. When introducing SIJS back in 1990, Congress designated this task to state juvenile court judges because federal immigration authorities are not equipped to determine the best interests of children. State juvenile judges do not make immigration determinations and instead only determine if the facts required for SIJS are present in a case; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has sole authority to grant SIJS status via the approval of Form I-360 Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, subject to extensive background and biometrics checks.

SIJS factual findings are issued in state courts in accordance with foster care, guardianship, delinquency, adoption, or sole custody proceedings, meaning that the request for SIJS factual findings must accompany one of these types of filings. Submitting only a motion for factual findings for SIJS will not vest the state court with jurisdiction. Dependency on a juvenile court does not require state intervention; a judge may commit a minor to the care of a private individual through a guardianship or sole custody determination, which was clarified by William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. A finding for SIJS purposes does not require formal termination of parental rights or a determination that reunification will never be possible, but Special Immigrant Juveniles are ineligible from ever sponsoring their parents for immigration status so the “chain migration” arguments do not apply to this relief.

What does Chapter 96 change?

Maryland law already permitted courts to issue SIJS factual findings. However, prior to Chapter 96, juvenile courts in Maryland could only exercise jurisdiction to consider individuals for SIJS up to age 18, which is the age of majority for guardianship and custody matters, even though federal immigration law permits anyone to apply for SIJS who is under age 21. This three-year gap significantly abrogated the federal law and caused undue hardship on the most vulnerable immigrant children. Chapter 96 closes this gap for this discrete class of Marylanders to carry out the will of the federal law on SIJS.

How Does Chapter 96 Benefit Maryland?

By expanding Maryland courts’ jurisdiction when determining whether immigrant youth qualify for SIJS, Maryland will have more stable families and community members. Through guardianship and sole custody proceedings, private individuals who want to take on the full legal and financial responsibilities of youth who have been abused, neglected, and abandoned can do so, providing an adult role model and easing reliance on state resources. At the tender age of 18, adult supervisiMD mapon makes a critical difference – studies show that involvement of surrogate parents is a key factor in educational achievement and avoiding risks such as alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and violence. SIJS youth can gain protection against being forced to return to unstable, life-threatening environments as well as obtain legal status, making it easier to qualify for student loans and attend school, learn English, and work legally. These youth become productive members of society, benefiting Maryland’s economy and increasing tax revenue and consumption. Moreover, SIJS proceedings are fiscally neutral to the state: the Department of Legislative Services determined the changes made by Chapter 96 fit within existing judicial procedures and carry no additional fiscal effect.

With children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala seeking safety in United States and Maryland having received 2,205 of these children from January 1 to July 7, 2014, Maryland will be able to serve the families of these children better than any other state thanks to Chapter 96. Chapter 96 will allow SIJS-eligible children to pursue this relief consistent with the intent of the Congressional framework, and not needlessly close the courthouse door on them on their 18th birthdays. This is crucial because the number of non-profit and private attorneys with SIJS competency do not meet the demand for representation for SIJS-eligible children so the wait lists are long and the cases slow-moving. Thanks to Chapter 96, the abused, abandoned, or neglected undocumented immigrant children who come to Maryland will have better chances and a longer opportunity of becoming documented, fully-contributing members of our society.

To learn more about SIJS, consider taking a case pro bono case from one of the following reputable non-profits with in-house SIJS expertise and a pro bono program offering mentorship and sample materials:

 

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington

Immigration Legal Services

Pro Bono Coordinator Jim Feroli, James.Feroli@catholiccharitiesdc.org

 

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)

Washington, DC Office

Christie Turner, cturner@supportkind.org

Baltimore Office

Liz Shields, lshields@supportkind.org

 

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Baltimore

Esperanza Center

Managing Attorney Adonia Simpson, asimpson@catholiccharities-md.org

 

Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition

Legal Director Heidi Altman, haltman@caircoalition.org

*Detained cases only

 

To learn more about how this law came to fruition, visit: https://cliniclegal.org/resources/articles-clinic/maryland-law-expands-eligibility-special-immigrant-juvenile-status

FOBR Heidi Altman of the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition Sets the Politicians Right on the Children

16 Jul

Kids

We have had lots to say about the children seeking refuge in the United States.  Yet, once again, our poor power to add or detract has become apparent in light of this brilliant piece by Friend of Benach Ragland (FOBR) Heidi Altman, Legal Director of the Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.  The CAIR Coalition has been providing legal services to unaccompanied children in Virginia for several years and the fierce and lovely staff there knows all too well the motivations that drive children to leave their homes in Central America.  Heidi describes the experience of CAIR staff and what they have learned in years of getting to know these children:

CAIR Coalition staff meets regularly with the girls and boys who are today’s front page news, helping them to understand the complex detention and deportation system they face immediately upon their arrival. Our staff has heard hundreds of stories from these youth over the years that this crisis has been unfolding, and we see patterns. We know these boys and girls are fleeing brutal violence. Some have escaped ongoing sexual and physical domestic abuse, for which the police provide no recourse. Others were forced into child labor in dangerous conditions because of extreme poverty. Underlying is the threat of gang violence, so pervasive throughout Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador that there is no escape – not at school, not at home, not on the streets. And in the gang wars of Central America, children are the easiest targets for predators whose governments cannot or will not control them. Boys in early adolescence must choose between gang recruitment or brutal harm or death, and girls face kidnapping and sexual slavery at the hands of older men who consider them property.

Read the whole piece here: http://www.caircoalition.org/2014/07/16/taking-a-step-back-behind-headlines-children-need-protection/

Donate to the CAIR Coalition here: http://www.caircoalition.org/donate/

Apply for a job at CAIR defending child immigrants: http://www.caircoalition.org/who-we-are/jobs/

Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Directors of CAIR.  However, that should not dissuade you from supporting them.- ACB

The Obama Administration’s Border Disaster

30 Jun

kids

Media reports over the weekend indicate that the Obama administration is reacting in the worst way possible to the influx of unaccompanied minors along the Southwest Border.  As the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform dies and leading House GOP members call for removal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) grantees, the administration, once again, seeks to placate the most anti-immigrant portions of the population.  Such a move is consistent with the administration’s long-held, and far too long stuck to, policy of ratcheting up enforcement to appeal to the nativists in the House GOP, hoping that this show of good faith would get them to support CIR.  Well, that strategy has not worked ever, yet the administration has chosen to stick with it, even though it means causing untold hardship to children fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries.

The Southwest border has once again become a focal point for the immigration debate.  Since October, over 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  Most of these children are from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where gang violence, extreme poverty and broken homes force kids to make the very dangerous journey to the U.S.  Many of these children have a parent in the U.S., who may or may not be here legally.  And many of these children may have learned that, if you make it to the U.S., you have a chance of staying.  But what is clear is that it is conditions in their home countries that are driving these kids out of their homes and across deserts and rivers.  The know-nothing chorus on FOX News has bleated that the arrival of so many children means that the border is not secure, that the administration has encouraged these children to come to the U.S., and that these children represent a danger to America.  Meanwhile, CBP is overwhelmed with these children.  However, rather than following the law which requires a careful and humane screening process, CBP has embarked on tactics to convince these children to turn back around.  A recent lawsuit against CBP by the ACLU asserts that children are being held in horrific conditions, pressured to go home, and subjected to casual violence.

So, after a month of hesitation and half-measures, the administration comes up with a plan to increase CBP’s authority to expedite the removal of these children.  U.S. law requires CBP to place a child encountered at the border with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).  That child will still be placed into removal proceedings, where a judge will determine whether the child has any legal right to remain in the U.S.  Children in HHS custody are often put into the custody of a relative.  Those without relatives are kept in HHS custody in, generally, better conditions than adults in DHS custody.  Many of these children qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile visas, which are available to abused, abandoned or neglected children for whom a state court has found that the best interests of the child require her remaining in the U.S.  Others may qualify for asylum.  A recent study from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that a significant portion of these children meet the legal definition of “refugee,” the starting point for a grant of asylum.  There are systems in place and organizations dedicated to securing these benefits for children.  For example, I serve on the Board of the Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (CAIR Coalition), which provides legal services to unaccompanied minors in the custody of HHS.  Part of CAIR’s funding comes from U.S. government grants.  An increase in those grants would seem appropriate at this time.

The administration’s proposal is a disaster.  It reminds me of the old saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  In addition to being cruel and heartless, it displays an amazing lack of imagination.  The administration’s response is to make enforcement easier, give children less due process, and increase the authority of an agency, CBP, that has shown time and time again that it can not be trusted with the authority it currently has.  What the administration seeks to do is to treat children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala as it treats Mexican children.  Here is what the law allows CBP to do with Mexican children:

(A) DETERMINATIONS- Any unaccompanied alien child who is a national or habitual resident of a country that is contiguous with the United States shall be treated in accordance with subparagraph (B), if the Secretary of Homeland Security determines, on a case-by-case basis, that–

(i) such child has not been a victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons, and there is no credible evidence that such child is at risk of being trafficked upon return to the child’s country of nationality or of last habitual residence;

(ii) such child does not have a fear of returning to the child’s country of nationality or of last habitual residence owing to a credible fear of persecution; and

(iii) the child is able to make an independent decision to withdraw the child’s application for admission to the United States.

(B) RETURN- An immigration officer who finds an unaccompanied alien child described in subparagraph (A) at a land border or port of entry of the United States and determines that such child is inadmissible under the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101 et seq.) may–

(i) permit such child to withdraw the child’s application for admission pursuant to section 235(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1225(a)(4)); and

(ii) return such child to the child’s country of nationality or country of last habitual residence.

Setting aside for a moment that this is grossly unfair to Mexican children, the administration should be pushing for more protection of all children and not less.  The administration is asking for $2 billion to help CBP detain and deport these kids.  This makes the CBP officer at the time of apprehension, the police, judge, jury and executioner.  The administration’s plan does not appear to be asking for additional resources to provide hearings before immigration judges, for interpreters and lawyers for children or to assist the non-governmental organizations that work with the children.  Rather the administration seeks funds to make it easier for CBP to remove kids who may qualify for relief and who may likely face danger in their home country.  Bob Goodlatte and Steve King could not have come up with a more cruel policy.

Another option that the White House apparently never considered is the fact that many of these unaccompanied minors have a parent in the U.S. with temporary protected status (TPS), a status which allows an individual from certain designated countries to remain and work in the U.S. but without any opportunity to bring family or seek residence.  Salvadorans who entered the U.S. before 2001 may have TPS and Guatemalans who entered before 1999 might as well.  Why not ask Congress to amend the TPS statute to allow for admission of children of TPS holders?  Why not ask Congress to covert some of these TPS beneficiaries into residents after over a decade of living here legally? Did anyone even consider these ideas?  Seems unlikely given that the administration’s response is to crack down (hammer meet nail) without any concession to due process or humanity.

Perhaps some of these children are the beneficiaries of petitions and are waiting for a visa.  Conditions in their home country deteriorated to the point that they decided to flee before the decade or so was up before a visa could be granted.  In the past Congress passed laws to grant temporary visas to people waiting in such queues.  But, alas, that was a different Congress and a bolder administration.

Finally, the USCIS Asylum Division has, historically, done a very good job dealing with asylum claims by children.  There are serious protocols that asylum officers must follow in dealing with juveniles and assessing their asylum claims in a generous light seems appropriate.  Yet, instead of providing the Asylum Division with the resources they need to address this humanitarian crisis, more and more funds are being thrown at CBP and expedited removal.  These children have navigated hundreds of miles and faced smugglers, deserts, trains, deserts, rivers and assorted criminals.  The least we can do is listen to their story as to why they did that.

Many have recognized for several months that the know-nothing caucus in the GOP has prevented the House from taking up immigration reform.  The hope, under such circumstances, is that the President would take decisive administrative action to ameliorate the human damage of our dreadful immigration laws.  The administration’s first effort to deal with immigration after CIR has been declared officially dead by the papers of consensus, the Washington Post and the New York Times, fails miserably and mocks the faith that many of us put in this President to do the right thing.