By Ilissa Mira
Los Angeles County has the highest number of unaccompanied immigrant children placed with sponsors in California. Legal representation is key to whether these children prevail in immigration court. For 15 years Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project has worked to ensure that children’s rights are protected. Esperanza provides community education and direct legal representation to unaccompanied children in the Los Angeles Immigration Court’s jurisdiction and to those in local shelters awaiting reunification with sponsors around the country. Through their Legal Orientation Programs (LOP) Esperanza helps children and their custodians understand the removal process, their rights under immigration law, and the available forms of immigration relief. Esperanza also provides direct representation to children in removal proceedings and refers cases for pro bono assistance.
Staff conducts weekly Know Your Rights presentations and individual legal screenings for unaccompanied children housed in shelters and longer term foster care. For example, Luis is one of these children and hopes to reunite with his aunt in New York. After a group legal orientation, Luis, aged 14, met with a paralegal to discuss his case. He looks younger than his age, but has experienced more than any teenager should. He fled El Salvador because local gangs threatened to kill him if he refused to join. His abusive father was known to gang members and also targeted. Luis fears he will be killed if he returns to the violence in El Salvador. He tries to act tough, but discussing his mother makes him emotional. “She loves me a lot and I miss her,” he said, crying, “I try to be strong every day.” As the number of unaccompanied immigrant children increased, so did the pace of the reunification process. Advocates worry that some children will not be reached through LOP before being released to family or other sponsors across the country.
Without representation, children like Luis struggle to present valid claims in immigration court. The most common remedies for unaccompanied immigrant children are Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and asylum. Esperanza finds that around 70 percent of the children they encounter qualify for one of those forms of relief. SIJS is a complex application process requiring two steps. First, a state court must determine that the child cannot be reunified with one or both parents due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment, and that it is not in the child’s best interest to be returned to his home country. Second, the immigration application must be submitted to and approved by USCIS. State court practice varies by jurisdiction and it remains a relatively new area for some courts. In Los Angeles, family courts in particular may be unfamiliar with the process or reluctant to make findings.
Successful advocacy often requires educating courts about the SIJS process and addressing jurisdictional concerns. Advocates argue that Congress tasked state juvenile courts with making discrete, factual findings because of their expertise in juvenile matters. Additionally, state courts do not make immigration determinations. USCIS ultimately decides whether to grant SIJS and permanent residency. Esperanza has great success representing children in SIJS cases and continues to pioneer “one-parent” SIJS cases in family court.
Many children that Esperanza serves are survivors of gang-based or domestic violence and are eligible for asylum due to fear of persecution based on certain protected grounds. Asylum interviews for unaccompanied children are now on an expedited schedule, meaning that children struggle to find legal representation and that attorneys have little time to prepare these cases, which require extensive research and documentation. Esperanza holds pro se asylum workshops for those who cannot find representation. During workshops children receive individual assistance with completing asylum applications and preparing for their asylum interview. Given the high number of children, limited number of attorneys, and the expedited scheduling, it is a final attempt to give children a chance to present their case.
Esperanza remains dedicated to representing vulnerable immigrants with complex cases. The state of California recently passed legislation to help organizations like Esperanza respond to the increased number of unaccompanied children. California Senate Bill 873 allocates $3 million to assist nonprofits with experience representing children in removal proceedings, asylum, SIJS, and other common forms of relief. The legislation also clarifies the state court’s jurisdiction to make the underlying findings that allow USCIS to grant SIJS status. Advocates hope the new funding will help expand capacity to provide unaccompanied children with crucial legal services.