Safe Passage Pro Bono Attorney Cesar Vargas featured in Huffington Post

Link to article:

NEW YORK ― When attorney Cesar Vargas first met his teenage client Ivan Ruiz, a newly arrived undocumented immigrant from Honduras, he noticed Ruiz seemed to wear the weight of his traumatic childhood on his sleeve.

Ruiz, 15 at the time, rarely spoke, returning questions about his life in Honduras with long stares and heavy nods. It was only over the course of a year that Vargas would learn the extent of abuse Ruiz suffered while living with extended family members after his parents immigrated to the United States for a better life. Ruiz was barely fed, forced to work long hours and beaten ― even whipped with tire rubber ― as punishment.

The abuse became too much to bear. After trekking through Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, Ruiz crossed the border into the United States in spring 2016. His journey wasn’t over, though, and a year ago he was ordered to appear in immigration court.

With Vargas’ help, Ruiz recently won a life-changing victory: He was granted asylum. He now spends his days in summer school, soaking up new English words and the novelty of life with only low-stakes, teenage worries. He recently took two girls to the prom and is delicately balancing the affections of another. He is looking forward to the day when he can join a Manhattan-based soccer league, but the $180 joining fee is currently too steep.

His case is remarkable for two reasons. At 16, Ruiz is representative of a class of highly vulnerable undocumented minors living under a presidential administration that is pushing people like him out. Even more remarkable is the person who helped get Ruiz to this point ― his lawyer, who also happens to be New York state’s first openly undocumented attorney.

It’s the type of legal win that motivated Vargas to work in immigration law. It’s also one that is bittersweet. It means that Vargas’ immigration status, as a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, could now be in more danger than that of his client. DACA, as it is known, is an Obama-era initiative that protects immigrants who came to the country as children from deportation, but its fate under President Trump remains ambiguous.

“As an attorney it’s just incredible to make sure that I can successfully win a case on behalf of my client based on the circumstances,” said Vargas, 33. “The other emotion is a mixed emotion. My client is probably going to have a much more permanent immigration status than his attorney.”

Ruiz’s story of getting to America was a familiar one for Vargas, who crossed the border from Mexico as a 5-year-old. Vargas was admitted to the bar association in February 2016, after passing the bar exam in 2011. He fought a years-long battle to receive this recognition as a person without legal status.

Vargas’ advocacy may have made all the difference for Ruiz, especially in the current political climate. Vargas connected with the teen as a pro bono volunteer with Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal representation and assistance to unaccompanied minors.

Undocumented people are significantly less likely to face deportation when they receive legal representation in immigration court. While immigrants are under nearly constant attack from President Donald Trump and government officers are increasingly hostile to their plight, happy endings like Ruiz’s are rare.

Safe Passage attorneys are working with about 700 children in the New York City area. It’s only a small slice of the children who need legal help, said Gui Stampur, deputy executive director and co-founder of the group.

In Vargas, Ruiz was able to find an advocate and a friend, too.

This month, on a sunny day at Safe Passage’s downtown office, Ruiz eagerly told Vargas about his adventures in teenage romance. He squirmed with youthful energy while explaining that he likes “everything” about his new life ― from his summer school classes to his new wardrobe. Back in Honduras, his cousins used to wear his shirts and underwear, he said. It wasn’t unusual for him to go without undergarments.

With Vargas translating, Ruiz said he loves living in New York, readily grinning when he correctly guessed a word in English and bragging about having received a new work authorization card. His mood shifted when he briefly touched on the intense physical and emotional abuse he endured in his home country.

My client is probably going to have a much more permanent immigration status than his attorney. –Cesar Vargas

Ruiz is a member of the Garifuna ethnic group, an Afro-indigenous people who are often subjected to intense discrimination, including from the police. This lack of protection allowed Ruiz’s abuse to go unchecked.

Vargas learns more details about this abuse nearly every time they talk. On the day of Ruiz’s last hearing in June, Vargas watched as his sweet, buoyant teenager client broke down when he was asked to go into details about the violence.

“That day, to see him completely shut down and relive those moments was very difficult,” said Vargas.

It made his client’s victory more sweet.

“It’s not just like a [legal] settlement, like here’s a million dollars. It’s like, here’s your life,” said Vargas.

It’s been a busy year for Vargas since he gained admission to the bar. He traveled around the country as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign adviser on immigration policy and Latino issues. He started working to represent undocumented service people and their spouses. Now he’s also working to organize residents in Staten Island to push for immigration reform.

Ruiz describes Vargas and his work as inspiring.

“He does beautiful work. He’s always there for me, every day,” said Ruiz.

Lenni Benson on WNYC

What it Means That Trump Wants to Limit ‘Unaccompanied’ Status for Minors Crossing the Borders

by Sarah Gonzalez, reporter for WNYC

Lenni Benson, Founder of Safe Passage Project 

Sarah Gonzalez discusses the potential consequences of President Donald Trump looking to limit ‘unaccompanied’ status for immigrant children. Tune in here to listen to Sarah Gonzalez interviewing Lenni Benson, founder of Safe Passage Project, and to read the full article.

Safe Passage’s Alexandra Rizio in Yes! Magazine

The Woman Giving Refugee Kids Free Lawyers:

Alexandra Rizio, Defending children from deportation

Yes! Magazine featured our own Alexandra Rizio, Senior Staff Attorney, and wrote about her advocacy for immigrants and refugees.

Click here to read the full article. 



Rex Chen, Safe Passage Mentor Attorney, Comments on New Deportation Policy

Please see below for an English translation of the article. 

La nueva política de deportaciones será difícil de batallar en los tribunales

Las nuevas directrices migratorias en Estados Unidos convierten a todo inmigrante ilegal en objeto de expulsión. Los expertos prevén un aluvión de detenciones.

AMANDA MARS, Nueva York 22 FEB 2017 – 22:04 CET


Habrá juicios, detenciones, manifestaciones. También conflictos entre el Gobierno federal y esas llamadas “ciudades santuario” -Nueva York, Los Ángeles o Chicago- que hacen la vista gorda con los inmigrantes sin papeles. Pero el corazón de las nuevas directrices de la Administración de Trump sobre las deportaciones será difícil de batallar en los tribunales, al menos, por el momento: la política de prioridad en la expulsión es una potestad presidencial y, además, los documentos publicados este miércoles no especifican los procedimientos de la puesta en marcha.

“Muchas partes del memorando que hemos conocido hoy hablan de que se tiene que crear un comité para ver cómo implementan las medidas, con lo cual es muy difícil llevarlo ante un juez, porque aún no se ha puesto en marcha. Lo que pasó con el decreto del 27 de enero [el que vetaba temporalmente la entrada a los llegados de siete países de mayoría musulmana] es que el Gobierno lo puso en marcha inmediatamente y se pudo parar. Ahora hay que ver cómo todo eso entra en vigor”, explica Rex Chen, miembro de Safe Passage Project, una asociación de abogados sin ánimo de lucro de Nueva York que ayuda a los miles de menores de edad que entran cada año solos y de forma irregular.

Las directrices conocidas este viernes mantienen la protección a los llamados dreamers, jóvenes que llegaron como niños a Estados Unidos y que han crecido en el país sin papeles. Pero Chen advierte de que “esto solo significa que aún no hay una decisión tomada al respecto, Trump dijo que era un asunto muy complejo y necesitaba tiempo, pero no se sabe aún qué hará”.

Faye Hipsman, del Instituto de Política Migratoria, una organización independiente para estudio de los movimientos migratorios, recalca que detener, en bloque, las nuevas directrices “es muy difícil, aunque probablemente veremos muchos litigios, porque el presidente es el que tiene la autoridad a la hora de fijar las prioridades en las deportaciones”. Hipsman coincide con Chen en que la situación de los dreamers, los que un día fueron niños migrantes, no está clara todavía.

El principal cambio de la guía de actuación de Trump es que es esfuerzo en la detención y expulsión de los inmigrantes sin papeles -se calcula que hay unos 11 millones en Estados Unidos- ya no son aquellos con delitos a la espalda, sino que “todo el mundo en situación irregular puede ser expulsado”.

Para aquellos en situación irregular que lleven menos de dos años en el país, además, se ha abierto la puerta a las expulsiones inmediatas, sin pasar por el tribunal. El problema de un extranjero sin papeles que sea detenido será poder demostrar que lleva más tiempo en Estados Unidos y para eso es necesario tener localizados rápidamente documentos que lo justifiquen. “No creo que tengan que llevar las pruebas encima todo el tiempo, pero sí es importante que sus familiares o amigos sepan muy bien dónde están y puedan entregarlos enseguida”, apunta Chen.

Llevar a cabo las deportaciones será costoso, de momento, el departamento de Seguridad Interior ha anunciado que contratará 15.000 nuevos agentes. William A. Stock, de la Asociación Americana de Abogados de Inmigración, advierte de que “el incremento masivo en detenciones requerirá miles de millones en fondos que el Congreso tendrá que imponer a los contribuyentes”, y la falta de recursos para contratar a los jueces de inmigración y los agentes de asilo “significa que el sistema se volverá más lento y disfuncional”.

Algunas organizaciones sostienen que el giro en la política de deportaciones ya se empezó a ver en las últimas semanas. Hace dos, de hecho, una operación de cinco días por parte de la agencia encargada de aplicar las leyes migratorias se saldó con centenares de detenidos en al menos seis Estados de todo el país.


The new deportation policy will be difficult to deal with in court.

The new immigration guidelines in the United States make any illegal immigrant subject to expulsion. Experts predict a barrage of arrests.

AMANDA MARS, New York FEB 22 2017 – 22:04 CET


There will be trials, detentions, demonstrations. Also conflicts between the federal government and those so-called “sanctuary cities” – New York, Los Angeles or Chicago – that turn a blind eye to undocumented immigrants. But the heart of the Trump administration’s new guidelines on deportations will be difficult to battle in court, at least for the time being: the priority policy on expulsion is a presidential power, and in addition, the documents released this Wednesday do not specify start-up procedures.

“Many parts of the memorandum that we have known today speak of a committee having to be set up to see how they implement the measures, making it very difficult to bring before a judge because it has not yet been set in motion. Decree of January 27 [the one that temporarily vetoed the arrival of the newcomers of seven countries of Muslim majority] is that the Government started it immediately and it was able to stop. Now it is necessary to see how all this enters into force,” explains Rex Chen, a member of the Safe Passage Project, a New York nonprofit law association that helps the thousands of children entering every year on their own and in an irregular manner.

The guidelines known this Friday maintain the protection of so-called dreamers, young people who arrived as children to the United States and who have grown up in the country without papers. But Chen warns that “this just means that there is still no decision made, Trump said it was a very complex matter and needed time, but it is not yet known what he will do.”

Faye Hipsman of the Institute of Migration Policy, an independent organization for the study of migratory movements, stresses that blocking the new guidelines “is very difficult, although we will probably see a lot of litigation, because the president is the one that has the authority to set the priorities in the deportations.” Hipsman agrees with Chen that the situation of dreamers, who once were migrant children, is not clear yet.

The main change in Trump’s action guide is that it is an effort to arrest and expel undocumented migrants – an estimated 11 million in the United States – are no longer those with crimes on their backs, rather “everyone in an irregular situation can be expelled.”

For those in irregular situations that have been in the country less than two years, in addition, the door has been opened to immediate expulsions, without going through the court. The problem of an undocumented foreigner being detained will be to prove that he has been in the United States for the longest time, and for that it is necessary to quickly locate documents that justify it. “I do not think they have to take the evidence on them all the time, but it’s important that family members or friends know where they are and can deliver them right away,” Chen notes.

Carrying out the deportations will be costly, so far the Department of Homeland Security has announced that it will hire 15,000 new agents. William A. Stock of the American Immigration Lawyers Association warns that “the massive increase in detentions will require billions in funds that Congress will have to impose on taxpayers,” and the lack of resources to hire immigration judges and asylum agents “means that the system will become slower and more dysfunctional.”

Some organizations argue that the shift in deportation policy has already begun to emerge in recent weeks. Two days ago, in fact, a five-day operation by the immigration enforcement agency resulted in hundreds of detainees in at least six states across the country.


Lenni and Claire Participate in UNICEF #ChildrenFirst Vigil

On Sunday, September 18th, Lenni and Claire participated in UNICEF’s #ChildrenFirst vigil outside the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Manhattan. During this candlelight vigil, advocates stood in solidarity with the 50 million children who are on the move worldwide and called on world leaders to put children first on the agenda during the UN’s summit on refugees and migrants.


Left to Right, Lisa Szarzkowski, Vice President of Humanitarian Emergencies and Executive Communications at U.S. Fund for UNICEF, alongside Professor Lenni Benson and Claire Thomas. Director of Training at Safe Passage Project

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IDNYC Celebrates a Year and a Half


IDNYC, a free photo ID card for ALL New Yorkers, is celebrating a year and a half of identification accessibility in New York City!

Any person who is a resident of the five buroughs may apply for and obtain an IDNYC for free, regardless of whether or not they may be homeless, youth, elderly, undocumented, formerly encarcerated, a victim of domestic violence, or transgender.

The card can be used to access all City buildings that serve the public as well as for interacting with the NYPD (a relief for people that were previously unable to obtain ID from the DMV and who relied on passports, cedulas, or simply went without identification.)

Additional IDNYC benefits include access to public libraries, free memberships to many cultural institutions, and discounts at grocery stores, movie theaters, animal shelters, and local YMCAs.

Card holders may add an emergency contact to the back of the card as well as note their primary language.

Click here to make an appointment at any site throughout the five boroughs!

Prosecutorial Discretion: An In-Depth Training Video

Safe Passage Project held an “In-Depth Training On Prosecutorial Discretion” on August 23, 2016. Rex Chen, Safe Passage Project Mentor Attorney and veteran “prosecutorial discretion” (“PD”) presenter, helped train over 40 people about seeking PD in the context of New York City Immigration Court.  Rex co-presented with Jodi Ziesemer, Supervising Attorney at Catholic Charities (Archdiocese of NY).

Rex and Jodi offered an overview of PD, practical tips, and addressed a large number of questions from the audience along with hypothetical cases.  They covered the recent change to the fingerprinting process for someone seeking PD and has never been fingerprinted before, meaning an immigrant who is brand new to the process.  Rex and Jodi also encouraged the audience to build an immigrant’s life details into a coherent story, drawing on common themes that appear in many stories and biographies that we hear and read outside the world of immigration law.

The audience of lawyers, students, and advocates were extremely involved with the presentation and raised a large number of questions, which Rex and Jodi worked to incorporate into the presentation.

Afterward, audience members felt the training was very clear and provided many practical tips.

Rex and Jodi thanked: NY City Council, NY Community Trust, and Robin Hood for funding the ICARE project. The ICARE Coalition, Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, and Leslie Wagner. Dr. Alan Shapiro, Dr. Cristina Muniz, and the Terra Firma staff. Michelle Mendez. Catholic Charities staff, including Raluca Oncioiu and Jacqueline Stabnow. Safe Passage Project staff including Lenni Benson, Claire Thomas, Stephanie Gibbs, Marilyn Alvarado, and Xia Gordon. Rebecca Press, Liane Aronchick, and Jacqueline Stabnow (a second time).

Please contact Rex Chen ([email protected]) if you would like to join an email discussion about prosecutorial discretion!

You can view the full presentation here.

For those watching the video, please download the handout and the appendix of materials that we gave the audience at the following two links:

Gui Stampur, Director of Legal Services, featured in the Atlantic

In an article published on August 20, 2016, “Across the Border and Into School,” the Atlantic recent coverage continues a recent trend of media attention on the lives of unaccompanied minors. In particular, the Atlantic focuses on unaccompanied Central American minors present in the United States and their challenges in getting in enrolled consistently in school.


Gui Stampur, Director of Legal Services at Safe Passage Project, was interviewed as part of the article. “These are challenges that, unchecked, obviously impact how kids do in school—and whether they go to school at all. “I think our goal at Safe Passage is to enable kids to be kids and to focus on school, to focus on their education,” Stampur said. While most schools in the city, he said, have been good about accepting students, occasionally he has to lean on schools upstate and on Long Island to enroll the undocumented children who live there.”


Read the article in its entirety on The Atlantic, or here.

Claire presents at National Association of Counsel for Children’s annual conference

On Sunday, August 14th, Claire Thomas, Safe Passage Project’s Director of Training, presented in Philadelphia to participants of the National Association of Counsel for Children’s 39th National Child Welfare, Juvenile & Family Law Conference on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a form of immigration protection for children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected.

Pictured from left to right are Claire; Daniel Trujillo, one of the conference’s organizers; and Derrick Hensley, an attorney for children in North Carolina who co-presented with Claire.


Gui Stampur, Director of Legal Services, in NY Times

Director of Legal Services, Gui Stampur, quoted in today’s NY Times article by Liz Robbins entitled, “A Paradoxical Position on Youths Fleeing Violence”

To read Mr. Stampur’s statement and the entire article, please click the link below:





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