Safe Passage Project Proud Recipient of $480,000 Grant from Keith Haring Foundation

March 28, 2018

Gui Stampur, Deputy Executive Director

New York, NY – Safe Passage Project, a New York-based legal services organization, announced today that it has been awarded a $480,000 grant by the Keith Haring Foundation. This generous grant, which will be allocated in two yearly installments of $240,000, will provide Safe Passage Project with general operating support to provide legal defense of children being targeted for deportation.

“Safe Passage Project is deeply grateful to receive this support from the Keith Haring Foundation,” said Safe Passage Project’s Executive Director, Rich Leimsider. “These funds will allow us to expand our legal and social services to some of the most vulnerable children in New York.”

Last year, more than 40,000 children travelling alone were apprehended at the US Southern Border. Despite their impoverished economic status, these children are not provided with a court-appointed lawyer. According to data from Syracuse University’s TRAC Program, without legal representation, immigrant children have only a 17% chance of success in court, despite eligibility for relief under United States immigration law.

To address the needs of these vulnerable children, Safe Passage Project specializes in recruiting, training and mentoring pro bono attorneys to become adept in representing immigrant youth in Family Court, Immigration Court, and with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Since its founding, the small nonprofit has taken on full representation of over 1,000 unaccompanied immigrant children, and has maintained a success rate of over 80%. The funds provided by the Keith Haring Foundation will enable Safe Passage Project to accelerate its growth and to overcome the increasing obstacles in US immigration law. With this grant, Safe Passage Project plans to take on full legal representation of an additional 200 children over the course of 2018 and 2019.

“The significance of this cannot be overstated. With these funds, the Keith Haring Foundation has ensured that Safe Passage Project will be able to fight for more children than ever in the years to come. Every new case that we are able to take on brings us closer to our vision of a world where no child faces Immigration Court alone,” continued Leimsider.

“We are so very proud to renew and increase our investment in Safe Passage Project,” said Julia Gruen, Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation.  “Haring believed in giving children opportunities to live their lives creatively and without fear.  We continue to celebrate his legacy through this meaningful and urgent partnership.”

Before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1990, Keith Haring established his foundation to ensure that the causes he cared about continued to receive support. The Keith Haring Foundation focuses on giving to organizations that assist marginalized children and organizations involved in education, research and care related to HIV and AIDS.


To download a PDF version of this press release, click here.

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:

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


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.


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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.

White House Demands Eviscerate Protections for Children

Safe Passage Project just issued a press release in response to the White House demands rolled out Sunday night. Click here to download the PDF.

The List of Immigration Demands Eviscerates Protections for Children and Tries to Turn Back Judicially Ordered Protections

Late on a Sunday night, the Administration rolled out a list of demands on immigration principles the Administration states are necessary before Congress goes forward to create protection for those people who received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But the demands take away both domestic and international rights for others. This trade of rights for some, by harming many, is a poor start to developing lasting solutions for these complex issues.

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. Congress does not provide free public defenders in Immigration Court proceedings and we recruit, train, and mentor advocates to help the children navigate the complex process of seeking protection and status under existing law.

In part, the Administrations List reads like a wish list hoping for statutory fixes that will restore legal arguments the government has lost in Federal Court. For example, the list includes abrogating a twenty year settlement in the Flores case that ensures that children are not detained indefinitely, that children have a fair opportunity to seek asylum protection, and that children can ask for state and federal courts to give them a chance to explain why they cannot return safely to their country of origin. Many of the changes sought are those Congress carefully designed and put into place in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Congress must preserve these measures, not strip them away.

The Administration inaccurately and improperly states that children are “admitted illegally.” In fact, these children are apprehended, detained, and put into deportation proceedings. They are not “admitted” and given status. Further, the staff who drafted this list seem to misunderstand one of the most important protections found in U.S. law since 1990: the protection for abused, neglected, or abandoned children. The list suggests that Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is a “loophole” for children to be admitted to the United States. Quite the contrary, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is a carefully designed provision that balances federal regulation of immigration with state law protection of children. It is not a visa, it is a needed path to a safe haven.

These complex legal determinations cannot be made rapidly by untrained agents at the border. Frequently,children and teens are so traumatized during their journeys that it can take many hours of interviewing and building trusting relationships before a formal application can be prepared.

The UNHCR reminds us that women and children now represent over 50% of the world’s refugees. The U.S. law has provided a small measure of opportunity to seek protection. The proposals strip away these modest protections. We do not need to lock up these children. We do not need to gut their modest procedural rights. Instead, wee must preserve an opportunity for these young people to seek protection.

Desireé Hernández Featured in NBC Latino 20!

Safe Passage Project is proud to announce that our Director of Legal Services has been featured in NBC Latino 20!

According to NBC News, “The #NBCLatino20 honors achievers who are making our communities and our nation better. These honorees are fiercely proud of their heritage, which has guided their work and inspired their accomplishments. Follow their fascinating stories throughout Hispanic Heritage Month.”

We are so grateful to work with someone as passionate as her. She reminds us everyday how important it is to tirelessly advocate on behalf our clients! Congratulations Desireé!

To read the complete article, please click HERE.

Lenni Benson shares thoughts on John Kelly – Trump’s new chief of staff

On Monday, July 28, Lenni Benson was featured in a Financial Times article by Courtney Weaver and David J Lunch. In the article, Lenni Benson shares her disappointment in John Kelly’s decisions regarding immigrants and immigrant rights.

Please click here to read the full article.

President Donald Trump and Chief of Staff John Kelly — as featured on, photo credit: AP/Susan Walsh.

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.

Safe Passage Project Featured in LinkedIn Article

The Founder and CEO of BorderGab, Maneesha Mukhi spoke highly of Safe Passage Project’s work in her article “No Child Should Face Immigration Court Alone.” This short Linkedin pierce describes the value of Safe Passage Project in aiding the influx of undocumented children. Mukhi notes,”The current climate has led to large groups of people mobilizing to defend our rights and that mobilization is both heartening and effective. With the judicial system at our disposal and the willingness of the people to work together, there is hope. Bureau Chief of the Civil Rights Bureau, Lourdes Rosado, said: “Now… is THE time for lawyers for social justice.”

Safe Passage Project featured in Medium

Felicity Conrad, Co-Founder of Paladin, recently published an article in Medium that featured Safe Passage Project. In this article, Conrad expresses the value of Safe Passage Project’s efforts in providing representation for undocumented children.

Click here to read the full article. 


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