By Tanya Bush
Upon reaching the border of the United States, children fleeing systematic violence, forced labor, and violent family members might imagine that our legal system would provide them with at least some assistance in navigating the complicated immigration process. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. Children do have rights to legal status and family stability, but instead of ensuring that they have the help they need, our government arrests, detains, and places children in removal or deportation proceedings. No one, not even a child, is appointed a free lawyer throughout this process.
It was during these removal proceedings that one of the Safe Passage Project’s legal fellows, Alexander Holtzman, met a boy named Carlos*, now 14 years old. Carlos was arrested at the Arizona-Mexico border after a long journey fleeing the constant neglect and forced labor that he faced at the hands his extended family in El Salvador. He was eventually released to an uncle living on Long Island, but his uncle did not have the income to hire legal counsel, and did not know how to help his nephew remain in the United States.
Luckily Carlos and his Uncle met Safe Passage Project. Our organization agreed to directly represent Carlos and guide him through the complicated process of obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (or SIJS for short), a form of legal protection that would enable Carlos to become a permanent legal resident. SIJS is a form of federal protection created by Congress to promote child welfare. Under this statute, immigrant children living in the U.S. who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by at least one parent can apply for lawful permanent resident status, commonly known as a “green card.” SIJS is an important resource for young non-citizens. It waives circumstances that would otherwise preclude adjustment of status, such as unlawful entry, working without authorization, status as a public charge, and other immigration violations. Once the minor becomes a lawful permanent resident, he/she can eventually apply for full U.S. citizenship.
Safe Passage Project and Carlos worked closely for months to navigate the enigmatic family court applications. Carlos’ uncle was ultimately able to qualify and serve as his legal guardian, offering Carlos the stability and safety he desperately needed. Then Safe Passage Project prepared and obtained the necessary materials for his SIJS case, documenting the neglect and harm Carlos suffered due to his father’s physical and mental abuse, as well as the dangerous labor he was forced to endure as a young teen. Based on these findings and an application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, our organization was able to obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for Carlos and put an end to his removal proceedings. Carlos can now remain the United States and is on the path to full legal residence. He is currently attending high school in Long Island and, perhaps unsurprisingly, wants to study to become a lawyer.
In the United States, many children are detained and ultimately deported because they are not provided with free legal counsel in immigration proceedings. Here at Safe Passage Project we are trying to bridge the gap between a child’s rights and the law. We have more than 400 pro bono attorneys working on over 700 cases like that of Carlos. We are incredibly grateful for the work of our generous volunteers, but we also require financial assistance to support our work. Donations help us recruit, mentor and train additional attorneys as well as support our direct service team of legal fellows and paralegals.
Safe Passage Project is primarily funded by donations and small grants, while New York Law School generously provides us with facilities and extensive overhead support. The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island also provides free office space for the use of our team. More than half of the children facing deportation in the New York City immigration court live in Nassau or Suffolk county on Long Island. There is no free legal aid inside the immigration court system, but we aim to change that. Please consider donating to support our mission. Your work can transform a child’s life.
We are seeking to raise $50,000 before the end of the year, and as of mid-December we have raised $30,000! Now is a great time to donate because our Board has generously agreed to match all donations up to that amount. Please donate today at:
*Name has been changed to protect client’s identity.