President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration reform leaves many searching for answers to this complicated and controversial topic.
Put your questions in context: Read this second in a series of El Diario editorials.
By C. Mario Russell
For El Diario
For many months, now, we have seen the pictures and read the stories of the thousands of children fleeing gang violence, severe poverty, and persecution in Central America. After a long and dangerous journey to the border, many are resettling with a relative in the New York area, each looking for a chance at a new life.
But to keep this chance alive, they must present themselves before immigration judges who have been assigned to decide their cases, whether they are 7 or 17 years old. This can be an overwhelming and sometimes scary experience for children; a long and confusing process for parents. And while each child’s case and situation is unique, in this installment I will present a few, basic points about procedure and law that may help families manage expectations:
Going to court is important, even if without a lawyer. Judges will give new appointments to allow children time to find a lawyer. The may enter an order of deportation if no one appears.
A responsible adult should accompany the child to court. Some adults say they are afraid to go because they are undocumented themselves or because they have an old deportation order. In such a case they should contact the Catholic Charities Children’s Call Center at 1-888-996-3848 for the latest information about enforcement policies or for when to attend a live Legal Orientation Presentation.
Judges will not decide the child’s case at the first court appointment. Most cases will take months to prepare and to be decided.
Develop a strong defense. While the process will demand patience it also will be an opportunity to present as full a legal defense against deportation as possible. There are several common defenses. Some children will qualify for asylum, which means proving that they suffered or will suffer persecution if returned to their home country. While not all cases of violence or deprivation qualify for asylum, some victims of gang violence have been able to succeed in their asylum case.
Some children may be eligible for special immigrant juvenile status. This is available to unmarried children under 21 who were abandoned or abused by at least one parent. Children who are living with one parent or have a guardian in the United States may therefore be eligible under this law.
Children who were victims of a crime in the United States may gain status under the “U Visa.” To qualify, the person must have suffered physical or mental abuse because of criminal activity and must have cooperated with law enforcement. Consider how many children were victimized by their smugglers in the United States… Similarly, victims of human trafficking may qualify for “T Visa” status if they were brought illegally to the United States to engage in sex work or in other forms of labor or servitude against their will.
Finally, every parent, custodian and child must know that any child in the United States, regardless of legal status, has a right to public elementary and secondary education, and, in New York State, to certain basic medical care coverage, called Child Health Plus (CHP). (Call the New York State Hotline at 1-800-566-7636 for further information).
Ensuring that these new young immigrants are healthy and in school is as important as making sure that they are guided well in their court proceedings. This is what gives them a real chance at a new life and makes possible all of their promise.
Mario Russell is Senior Attorney and Director of Immigrant and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities, 80 Maiden Lane, NY, NY 10038; he also teaches immigration law at St. John’s University School of Law.