Raphael was just seven years old when his mother brought him from Mexico to Gainesville, Georgia for a good education and better opportunities. But by the time he was 16 his mother was arrested for drugs and deported. He dropped out of school and was working in a factory to support himself and his sister. Because he was brought here illegally, he constantly faced the threat of deportation to a country he knew only as a little boy.
Now his mother’s dream for her children is about to be fulfilled.
The Division of Family and Children Services learned of his situation and he was referred to Catholic Charities for legal help. At 18, he’s on track to be declared a Special Immigrant Juvenile, enabling him to live in the United States legally for 10 years with the possibility of repeated renewals as a lawful permanent resident or naturalization as a citizen. His sister already has the designation.
The status is available to qualified undocumented immigrants under 21 who have no parental support in the United States and who should not return home as determined by a judge.
Asked in a telephone interview what is good about receiving the special status, Raphael, who asked us not to use his real name, had a simple answer: “Everything.”
Catholic Charities handles a vast majority of the petitions for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) in Georgia and five other Southeastern states. Rebeca Salmon, the lawyer with Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services who specializes in work with juveniles, estimates that her office received SIJS for about 150 children and teenagers in 2009.
As emotions rise and rhetoric flies about immigration in the current political climate, Salmon works steadily on behalf of a small segment of the immigrant community she sees as the most vulnerable. She hears stories of juvenile immigrants at the rate of about 200 a month. Of the 200, “we might take in 120,” she says. Of those, only about 20 will qualify for SIJS. Salmon’s track record (“knock on wood,” she says) is 100 percent because she makes sure clients are qualified before she applies.
“My understanding is that if the status is requested and denied, the child is not better off,” says Elise Shore, legal consultant to the Georgia-based Sapelo Foundation and author of the foundation’s report, “Immigration Enforcement and Its Impact on Latino Children in the State of Georgia,”’ released June 22. “A lot of children don’t come to the attention of the system, or if they do it may be too late.”
Some Special Immigrant Juveniles are brought here by parents who are later deported, imprisoned or voluntarily return to their home countries. Some are removed from their homes because of abuse. Some are orphaned. And some come to the United States on their own looking for a parent or another relative.
Every story is different, Salmon says, and each one is filled with its own drama.
- One young woman, now a high school student in Gwinnett County, was riding with her family in Colombia when a car bomb killed her father. Her traumatized mother fled with her to the United States but soon returned home without her daughter. Salmon used newspaper articles about the bombing as evidence in the girl’s case.
- A Guatemalan veterinary student at the University of Georgia was left in the United States with a cousin when he was one year old. At 20, he learned he was illegal and in danger of deportation.
- An 11-year-old boy made his way alone from El Salvador to find his uncle after his mother was tortured and killed by a gang and his father was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. His uncle took him in. He was thrust into the legal system when police picked him up as he climbed through the window of the uncle’s house after getting out of school early.
Many children come looking for parents they never find. Often parents come, legally or illegally, from impoverished areas to find jobs so that they can send money home. Mothers may leave their children with family members in the home country. Unfortunately, Salmon says, after long absences the parents may feel less committed to the family in their home country and may even establish a new family here. Meanwhile, their children back home are dreaming of a reunion.
“I can’t tell you,” Salmon says, “how many kids decide one day, ‘I’m going to go to the United States’ and they get on a bus and head north—because they know the United States is north—with no extra clothes, no walking shoes, no food, no money, no plan.”
They may spend weeks or even months begging, doing odd jobs or selling their bodies, she says. “The best thing that can happen to these kids is that they’re caught at the border,” she says, “because then they’re taken to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, given food, given water, given medical care.”
Officials assess the situation and begin looking for family members of the child in the United States, but that can be hard. Parents may have common names and the children may know only the state where they once lived —if that. Sometimes officials find a distant family member or friend who is willing to become the child’s guardian. A child who meets other requirements may then apply for SIJS.
Some cases that tug hardest at Salmon’s heart involve kids who come seeking a mother or father and actually locate their parents. A child living with a parent doesn’t qualify for SIJS and parents with temporary protective status can’t sponsor their children. In many of those cases, Salmon says, the best she can do is help the child get back to the home country voluntarily to avoid legal deportation and the 10-year ban on returning that comes with it.
Juveniles come to Catholic Charities through courts, social workers, school counselors, government agencies, private immigration and refugee organizations, and foundations. “And immigrants talk,” Salmon says. “If I have a client, they’re going to tell ten people, and they’re going to tell ten people.”
Part of her job is educating workers in social agencies, schools and juvenile courts, “anyone who’ll stand still long enough,” she says, about the services for undocumented immigrant juveniles.
Once Salmon determines that a child is a good candidate for SIJS, the first major step is to have the child declared “deprived” in Georgia’s legal terms, meaning that the child is in Georgia with no parent or legal guardian. A juvenile court judge must also determine that because of political conditions or family situation, returning to the home country is not in the child’s best interest. Although under federal law SIJS can be granted to age 21, juvenile court in Georgia has jurisdiction in deprivation cases only to age 18.
Armed with the juvenile judge’s order, lawyers can approach immigration court to request relief from deportation while pursuing legal status. Then, the petition for SIJS is filed. Since the end of 2008, federal law requires a ruling on such petitions within six months.
Because SIJS cases span state and federal courts and often involve interaction with several agencies, and because children usually don’t have money for lawyers, few private attorneys undertake SIJS cases, Salmon says. Catholic Charities does have relationships with lawyers in other states around the Southeast who handle state court appearances there, while Salmon does the immigration petitions.
Salmon holds her young clients to a high standard. In addition to the official requirements laid out by the law, she insists they go to school, stay out of trouble, and learn English.
Even with SIJS, she says, conviction of multiple or serious crimes can result in deportation. “I’ve told kids who come in here all slouchy and wanting to be all gangstery, I really can’t help you,” she says. “It’s going to do you no service to get you immigration status to work in this country and live in this country if you’re not going to assimilate and function in this country. . . . That’s not a good use of my time or my resources.”
Salmon says she’s had little opposition from anti-immigrant groups for her work. “We only do valid cases,” she says, “and who wants to kid-bash?” She says Atlanta is “not very immigrant-friendly, but when you start telling people stories about real people, it’s not just immigration any more. It’s a real person’s life.”
She tries to make sure many of those stories have happy endings. Looking around her cramped, no-frills office, she says she can pull out any file and say, “I changed this kid’s life. That’s awesome.”
And there’s always more to do. On the wall above her computer is the list of cases in the works by birthday. She always knows who’s nearing 18 and in risk that time will run out.
Gayle White was a reporter for 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts