Safe Passage Attorney of the Month

We are proud to feature Kristin Pezzuti as our current Safe Passage Project Attorney of the Month. Kristin is a defense litigation attorney at Wilson Elser where she specializes in representing physicians and other health care providers in medical malpractice matters.  Kristin learned about Safe Passage through her firm’s pro bono program, and began working on her own Safe Passage case in 2015.  Kristin explained that while she had worked on several other pro bono projects in the past, her Safe Passage case was the first pro bono case of “magnitude,” where she worked on it from start until finish.

Kristin’s case was a bit unusual in that she had three sibling clients at the same time.  “Working with three clients was challenging but three times as rewarding,” Kristin explained.  “Each client has a distinct personality and had their own experiences that influenced how we prepared their asylum applications.”  Kristin recalled that the eldest brother experienced a lot more direct threats whereas the youngest brother did not have as many memories of the experience. Kristin made sure she met with each client individually as well as together.  “Preparation was key to consistency and that we all had clear understanding of what actually happened,” said Kristin.  “Additionally, affidavits from mental health professionals were important.  They explained that due to my clients’ ages and experiences, their memories may be vague, but, this has to do with age and trauma, not credibility.”  Ultimately, Kristin was able to obtain asylum relief for all three of her clients.

Pro bono is an important part of Kristin’s practice and she feels that the assistance she received from Safe Passage mentor attorneys greatly helped her and her clients prepare for the asylum interviews.  “If I ever had a question there was always a Safe Passage Project attorney available for guidance,” Kristin recalled.  “They are all extremely knowledgeable and really passionate about their work.”

Kristin believes that once attorneys start taking pro bono cases “they get hooked” and will want to take more.  Kristin recommends taking a case with Safe Passage because attorneys have “a lot of independence and ability to be creative while still always having someone available for guidance if you have an issue to discuss.”  Kristin also wants attorneys to remember that there is a great need for pro bono in the community, and if an attorney is hesitant to take on an entire case, there are many non-profit projects with other types of pro bono opportunities.  For example, in addition to her pro bono work with Safe Passage, Kristin currently volunteers with New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC where she advocates for immigrant rights.

We thank Kristin for her dedication and commitment to pro bono projects.  We look forward to working with you on additional Safe Passage cases in the very near future. Thank you!

Guernica Interview with Co-founder and Deputy Executive Director, Gui Stampur

Gui Stampur: Reform Is Long Overdue

The lawyer and activist on helping unaccompanied immigrant children navigate immigration court.

Courtesy of Gui Stampur (on right).

At the age of fifteen, Diego left his home in Honduras after a family member had been murdered by the local gang. He and his younger sister traveled by foot, bus, and eventually La Bestia—a series of cargo trains used by migrants fleeing north, known as “the Train of Death”—looking for refuge. Many children die on this journey. Others are kidnapped, or caught by immigration agents and deported. Diego, whose name has been changed, and his sister were assaulted. They spent nights without food and water. But they survived. Ninety-two days after their journey began, they reached the Mexico-US border, only to be promptly arrested by border patrol. Their case was transferred to a New York court, where Diego faced a new challenge: convincing a judge to allow him and his sister to remain in the United States. Diego did not understand his rights. He did not know how to advocate for himself. He spoke no English.Just prior to their first court appearance, Diego and his sister were approached by lawyers from the Safe Passage Project in the hallway of immigration court at 26 Federal Plaza. Safe Passage’s attorneys, who can often be found at the court looking to serve unrepresented children, offered free legal aid. They helped Diego and his sister obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile status, a protection for foreign children who have been abused or neglected and face significant risks in returning to their home country. Two years and seven court appearances later, the siblings received their green cards. Diego has since graduated from high school and is saving money to attend college. He wants to be an actor or a lawyer.
 

Protection from Deportation: Safe Passage Project Aids a 14-year-old from El Salvador

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 the 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.

The 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 the 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 the 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:

https://www.flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/MjY1NzI

*Name has been changed to protect client’s identity.

 

Protecting a Teen from Deportation—Family Protection for Victims of Trafficking

Congress has special protections in the immigration law for noncitizens who are victims of trafficking. But despite significant resources expended by the federal government to help find these victims, very few “T visas” are granted. In 2016, an annual quote of 5,000 T visas was available, yet the Department of Homeland Security only granted 1,736.

This past month, Alexander Holtzman, an attorney and Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow at the Safe Passage Project successfully aided Fernando,* an immigrant from El Salvador, to secure derivative T-Visa status as the son of a victim of trafficking. Safe Passage Project focuses our work on protecting immigrant youth who are in removal or deportation proceedings. In October we met 13-year-old Fernando,* who entered the United States alone. Fleeing poverty, gang threat, violence, and recruitment, Fernando sought to be reunited with his mother in Long Island. Traveling on countless buses, cars, and boats to reach his family, Fernando was apprehended at the border, and detained by border patrol officials.

 

             Attorney Alexander Holtzman

Fernando fled to the United States, fearing systematic gang violence and coercion.“It was a life or death situation,” he stated. He was arrested by border patrol and like many other unaccompanied children, was put into removal proceedings and faced likely deportation. To prevent this dangerous outcome, the best solution for Fernando was the T-Visa, a unique form of protection that was being offered to his mother. Congress has wisely allowed children of victims of trafficking to apply for a derivative T-Visa. One of the main reasons people are afraid to come forward is threats to their family here or abroad and the T-Visa is intended to address that. Fernando and his mother visited several non-profits seeking pro bono representation and legal aid in obtaining the visa. They were turned down several times.

In October 2016, Alexander Holtzman and Safe Passage Project took on Fernando’s case. After months of advocacy, the necessary waivers were granted, and the derivative T-visa was won. “Now that he is qualified for Trafficking Protection, we will move to terminate his case in immigration court.” Holtzman states.

Safe Passage Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing pro bono representation of children facing immigration proceedings alone—providing training, resources, and mentoring to volunteer attorneys. Our organization fights for the rights of our clients, reuniting children with their guardians and helping young people navigate the complicated immigration system. Without Safe Passage Project it is very likely that many children like Fernando would not have status and protection in the United States.

Derivative T-Visas promote family unity. While living in El Salvador, Fernando had worried about his mother and her tenuous situation in the United States. Like many women in the region, his mother had come to the U.S. in search of work—hoping to offer her children a better life and a more assured future. Now Fernando attends West Babylon Senior High School, living with his mother and studying. Fernando’s favorite subject is Spanish and he hopes to one day become a teacher.

Safe Passage Project is funded by donations and small grants. New York Law School generously provides extensive overhead support and facilities. The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island also provides free office space for the use of the Safe Passage Project team. Over one-half of the children facing deportation in the New York City immigration court live in Nassau or Suffolk counties on Long Island. There is no free legal aid inside the immigration court system. Please consider donating to support our mission. Your work can transform a life.

We are seeking to raise $50,000 before the end of the year and our Board has agreed to match those funds. Please donate today:

https://www.flipcause.com/secure/cause_pdetails/MjY1NzI=

For more information on recognizing the signs of human trafficking click here.

*Name has been changed to protect client’s identity.

 

 

New York Law School Alumni Magazine Features Safe Passage Project

Recently the New York Law School alumni magazine featured the immigration activities of Safe Passage Project.

New York Law School is a generous supporter of our nonprofit as well. From office space to the participation of professors, students, and alumni, Safe Passage Project is thankful to be a part of the New York Law School community.

Many of the trainings and CLE’s offered at NYLS and profiled in the magazine story are designed and implemented by Safe Passage Project staff.

Some of the over 400 pro bono supporters of Safe Passage Project are also featured in the story.  Pictured below, the Safe Passage Project NYLS clinical class and some Safe Passage Project staff.

Check out the magazine here.

U.S. Protection of Immigrant Children: A System in Need of Improvement

Ahead of an international meeting on migration in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, UNICEF released a blueprint for how to protect immigrant children. The report titled “Beyond Borders: How to make the global compacts on migration and refugees work for uprooted children,” highlights best practices for the care and protection of refugee and migrant children. “Refugee and migrant children are especially vulnerable to xenophobia, abuse, sexual exploitation, and lack of access to social services. It is imperative to have policies in place to protect them over the course of their journey,” the report says. Sharing case studies from around the world, the report presents a six point agenda for action as a basis for policies to protect refugee and migrant children and ensure their wellbeing.

Children deserve better protection. In 2016, Safe Passage Project and Professor Lenni Benson authored a paper US Protection of Immigrant Children: A System in Need of Improvement, contending with some of the fundamental issues highlighted in the report.

Click here for the UNICEF full report.

and here for Professor Benson’s paper: U.S. Protection of Immigrant Children_A System in Need of Improvement June 2016 (2)

Children Welcoming Children

“I read a book this year about what refugee kids go through when they first arrive and I wanted to do something to make you feel like you belong here and this will be a happy home for you.” -Preston, age 11. “I know you are new to this country and I bet you feel a little scared or lost but I promise that you will love this country as much as I do once you get to know it. This city has people from all over the world and everyone is welcome here. I hope you feel welcome.”-Tripp, age 11.

A class of local fifth grade students from PS6 donated posters to Safe Passage Project to welcome immigrant children to the United States. These students understand the need for messages of compassion, solidarity and support for migrant youths during the complicated and difficult process of immigration within the United States.

Safe Passage Project is currently aiding around 700 immigrant youth who would be facing deportation alone if our volunteers and staff did not step forward to assist them in seeking asylum or other protected status. Thank you for continued support and consider donating or volunteering for Safe Passage Project today.

Safe Passage Project Concerned that the DOJ is Pressuring Immigration Courts and Ignoring the Vulnerability of Children

Attorney General Sessions issued a press statement and background memorandum discussing efforts to improve efficiency in the immigration courts. These administrative tribunals are part of the Department of Justice and are formally called the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). The workload of the EOIR is generated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Cases may arrive from the airports, the border, or interior enforcement.

We volunteer at the New York Immigration Court and meet unaccompanied children who are facing deportation proceedings. New York is one of the most high-volume jurisdictions with over 75,000 pending immigration cases. In the past few years more than 15,000 cases have involved unaccompanied minors. The children are placed into removal proceedings by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is part of DHS. Almost all of these young people have claims for protection under international and domestic law. Yet U.S. law does not give them free legal counsel. Children who manage to find a free attorney or who have a family member who can pay for counsel usually win a positive result in their cases – typically over 85% of the time.  Children who are unrepresented prevail less than 15% of the time.

In the backgrounder posted by the Department of Justice today, the agency points to three factors that it says are slowing down the courts:

1) prosecutorial discretion

2) DACA; and

3) provisional waivers.

None of these three actions are handled by the EOIR nor by DOJ. In fact, all three take work away from the immigration courts and free up the staff and judges to hear complex cases and to adjudicate claims for protection such as asylum claims. These three programs are handled by the DHS and all are based on Congressional authority vested in the DHS both to determine its priorities and to operate normally as all prosecutorial agencies must.

But what is most concerning in the DOJ release today is that there was not a word about the challenges faced by the vulnerable population of juveniles navigating the complex court system. While efficiency might mean speedier cases for some, the legal reality is that juvenile cases require continuances because almost all of the remedies available to a child are adjudicated first by DHS, not by an immigration judge in the DOJ.

EOIR has, in the past, tried to speed up children’s cases, but it ended the “surge” dockets for children last January. EOIR has issued past Operating Procedures that keep juvenile cases on a separate docket to allow the judges to adapt the process the needs of children and to facilitate pro bono representation. In New York, the EOIR docketing practices have become erratic and now it is harder than ever for the pro bono and nonprofit community — as well as the private bar — to ensure representation for children. Kids should not be on the same docket with adults, and judges should not feel pressured to rush a case to a removal order that will ultimately have to be “reopened” because the young person has been able to qualify for legal status through one of the protective options available under Congressional statute.

We urge the leadership of the EOIR and the DHS to remember to value due process and fairness in adjudication. We don’t measure our justice systems by the number of cases handled. We measure courts by efficiency tempered by the goal of accuracy and fairness.

 

Learn more about Safe Passage Project at www.safepassageproject.org  

Follow us on Twitter @SafePassageProj

Media queries: [email protected] or [email protected]

 

Finally an Opportunity to Be Heard

Today, Tuesday, December 5, 2017, Safe Passage Project and our cooperating attorney Paige Austin from the NYCLU successfully defended a teenager who had been detained by the federal government for more than five months as part of his immigration proceedings. “This young man was cooperating with immigration authorities and pursuing legal status in the United States when he was swept up in rearrests by DHS in the summer of 2017,” said Tim Greenberg, who is one of his lawyers and is one of our staff attorneys. The Safe Passage Project first fought for our client’s return to New York State after the government wrongfully moved him to a remote detention center in California. Our cooperating attorneys at the Northern California chapter of the ACLU successfully won a federal court order (Saravia v. Sessions) and a class certification that DHS must justify why it rearrested and detained youth based on gang allegations that did not seem to stand up under scrutiny. Under that federal court order and the Flores judicial orders, children should not be detained without an opportunity to contest the circumstances of their rearrest and detention.

We expect the government to reunite our client with his mother and family within the next day. Pictured below are the family and some of the members of his legal team. We are grateful to everyone who has assisted in this landmark case and believe that at least 13 other young people have been released after wrongful rearrest.

Children are children first. Immigration law should not change the fundamental protection of the best interests of children. Safe Passage Project, housed at New York Law School, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to recruiting, training, and mentoring attorneys who provide free legal assistance for children in immigration proceedings. Safe Passage thanks Stephanie Gibbs, Rex Chen, Lenni Benson, and Desiree Hernandez, who provided invaluable help to the case.

Safe Passage Project Helps Long Island Children Challenge Questionable Gang Allegations

On November 20, 2017, a federal district court judge in Northern California issued a sweeping order forcing the government to provide all unaccompanied children who are currently detained with a chance to challenge allegations they are affiliated with gangs if that was the justification for re-arresting them after April 2017! Safe Passage Project provides free legal services to unaccompanied children across New York, including hundreds of children who live on Long Island.

Using Operation Matador and other efforts by DHS and ICE, the government has re-arrested a number of children based on supposed gang affiliations. Some of the clients that Safe Passage Project was representing were re-arrested. The government unfairly re-arrested one of our clients on Long Island and then immediately moved him to California, far from his lawyers. Drawing on the immigrant rights’ legal community, Safe Passage Project partnered with the ACLU of Northern California to challenge the detention of our client by ORR, the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Building on our client’s case, the ACLU of Northern California spearheaded a federal lawsuit to challenge how the government is re-arresting many children without offering any method to challenge the validity of supposed gang affiliations.

News articles discuss how many of the gang affiliation accusations fall apart once they are studied. Many accusations are based on perfectly innocuous conduct, such as having a country’s flag posted on a Facebook account.

At Safe Passage Project, our staff has been heavily involved with defending our client and helping the ACLU of Northern California obtain the nationwide injunction. Safe Passage Project staff working on the case include Stephanie Gibbs, Tim Greenberg, Rex Chen, Desireé Hernandez, and our founder Lenni Benson. We are very thankful for the class action litigation team, which includes Julia Harumi Maas and Bill Freeman (ACLU of Northern California), Stephen Kang and Judy Rabinowitz (ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project), Martin Schenker (Cooley LLP), and Holly Cooper!

A quickly-prepared practice advisory about the new court order is available at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/pvzknowieed1l58/ACLU%20Northern%20Cal%20advisory%202017.11.21%20hearings%20for%20rearrested%20UCs.pdf?dl=0

The court’s November 20, 2017 order is available at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/7qegh9vbanf08x6/Hearings%20to%20challenge%20detention%20CA%20fed%20ct%202017%2011%2012%20prelim%20injunction%20Gomez%20v.%20Sessions.pdf?dl=0

Please contact us for more information about defending unaccompanied children who are in ORR custody after being recently rearrested or the struggles that children on Long Island are facing. Thank you to all our volunteers and supporters who make this possible!

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