ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — Slightly hunched over in her purple hoodie on a long desk that she shared with her attorney, the 13-year-old eighth grader from Honduras sat before the immigration judge. Just a few weeks earlier, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) granted humanitarian protection to the 13-year-old, who asked only be identified by the last three digits of her case number, 535. Her mother, standing directly behind her, beamed with cautious joy evident by the wrinkled corners of her eyes.
“Respondent received Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status,” her legal representative, Nicholas Marritz explained to the judge. Marritz, a pro bono attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center based in Virginia, was just one of many lawyers representing young clients in the room. “We’re seeking termination of her deportation proceedings.”
After a few verbal exchanges and papers handed to the judge and opposing counsel, the judge announced, “Case is hereby terminated. Hearing is now adjourned.” The girl and her mom quickly followed Marritz out of the courtroom as the judge called for another case number on his docket to come before him.
Since 1990, some children under the age of 21, who entered the country illegally and have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents, can apply for SIJ status, which provides a path to U.S. residency. Often, it’s the case that one parent has been the source of that abuse or neglect, while there’s another parent in the United States that the child can live or reunify with.
“535 managed to escape a terrible situation and reunite with mother, who provides her with a loving home,” Marritz later said to ThinkProgress. According to Amy Walters, a staff attorney at Legal Aid Justice Center, 535 witnessed her father’s murder inside their home back in Honduras.
Inside a nearby hotel lobby across from the courtroom, 535 and her mother breathed a sigh of relief and hugged. Since 535 arrived in the United States in March 2014 along with a large increase of unaccompanied migrant children who were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, the eighth grader has lived with her family in Albemarle County, Virginia, awaiting a court decision.
Now 535 will permanently stay.
“I was worried and nervous because I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I have a lot of faith in God,” 535’s mother said through Marritz who acted as translator. “I asked God to please have everything turn out okay. And I’m so glad because he listened to me.”
The mother worked long hours as a house cleaner to save up $2,000 for a smuggler to transport 535 from Honduras through Mexico. Paying off a debt to smugglers was nothing new for 535’s mother. She said that she had once paid off $5,000 to coyotes, or human smugglers, for helping her make the same journey nine years ago. According to 535’s mother, her journey had been comparably “easy,” with coyotes even driving her from the southern border to Albemarle County at the time.
But in the nine years that the mother made the journey, the government increased border security efforts by patching up a porous border with taller border walls and increasing surveillance efforts. Along the southwest border, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) went from 9,100 Border Patrol agents in 2001 to more than 18,500 in recent years. And the DHS budget has more than doubled since 2003, the Huffington Post reported. Increased enforcement efforts have paid off: Net undocumented migration is now at or below zero; the number of people apprehended crossing the border has decreased; and “many places have 100 percent eyes on the border,” a Center for American Progress report found.
“If my husband were still alive, he would never have allowed her to come,” 535’s mother said, her voice trailing off. “But the situation got so bad…”
Known as the murder capital of the world, there are an estimated 85 to 91 killings per 100,000 people in Honduras, the World Health Organization reported. Since 2005, murders of women and girls have increased 346 percent, while murders of men and boys have increased 292 percent, the Washington Office on Latin America reported last year.
“There’s a man who crosses you over the river [the Rio Grande in Texas],” 535 said, recalling her journey. From there, 535 said that she surrendered to Border Patrol agents. 535 said that she stayed in a San Antonio, Texas shelter for unaccompanied minors for 12 days and grew quiet when she described her “cold” experience. She was then reunited with her mother in Virginia.
Looking forward to her future for the first time, the eighth grader who loves to draw, hopes to become a doctor or a policewoman in the United States one day.
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
Still, because 535’s mother is undocumented, the family risks separation again. SIJ status prevents children from petitioning for a green card for their parents since a child who “immigrates as an SIJ ceases to be a ‘child’ of her parents for immigration purposes,” a Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) fact sheet stated.
“Because of our broken immigration system, 535’s mom could be deported at any time—leaving 535 with no caregiver at all,” Marritz explained. “It really speaks to the need for comprehensive immigration reform, one that provides a pathway to citizenship and keeps families together.”
Congress has stalled on overhauling the immigration system since the Senate passed a bill 2013, and even a temporary executive fix has been put on hold by a federal judge for people like 535’s mother who have longstanding roots in the country. Through her two other U.S.-born children, the mother would have potentially qualified for deportation relief and temporary work authorization under President Obama’s executive action known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). That program and another similar one for immigrants brought to the country as children has been temporarily put on hold by a Texas judge.
If the government deports 535’s mother, all three children would be placed in the foster care system. Between 2010 and 2012, about 205,000 parents of U.S.-citizen children have been deported back to their countries of origin.
An estimated 40 percent of unaccompanied minors are likely eligible for some form of relief from removal. And unaccompanied minors who, like 535, have lawyers are much better equipped to navigate the legal court system and stay in the country. Surveying a decade’s worth of court reports, a Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse report “found that whether or not an unaccompanied juvenile had an attorney was the single most important factor influencing the case’s outcome.” As the Vera Institute of Justice explained, many migrant children “meet conditions that would allow them to remain in the country legally,” but “going through immigration proceedings without legal help is daunting.” In 2010, Vera identified 1,604 children, the majority of whom were from Central America, in its Legal Access Project that were potentially eligible for SIJ status.
In a snapshot of court cases between September 2013 and June 2014 when the increase in unaccompanied children arrivals began to peak, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that about 66 percent of 305 children whose cases were decided and had attorneys, were granted the ability to stay in the country by an immigration court. In the same time period, only 42 percent of 735 children whose cases were also decided, but didn’t have attorneys, were granted the ability to stay in the country.
Under a Freedom of Information Act request, Politico found that from July 2014 onward, “352 children without lawyers have succeeded in having their removal proceedings terminated or administratively closed — two measures of potential progress toward asylum or special immigrant juvenile status. At the same time, 4,711 children without counsel were ordered removed or compelled to accept voluntary departure.” Politico found that 2,459 children with legal counsel “succeeded in having their removal proceedings terminated or administratively closed — seven times the number for children without lawyers. Just 1,096 were ordered removed or took voluntary departure, less than a quarter of the total for child migrants without legal representation.”
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
An influx of 68,541 Latin American unaccompanied children crossed the southern border last year, about 33 percent of whom came from Honduras. Gang violence, grinding poverty, and drug trafficking have pushed children, some as young as three years old, to make the 1,500+ mile journey to the United States from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the three Central American countries that make up the so-called Northern Triangle. And Honduras’ violence only got worse after a 2009 military coup and Colombian drug trafficking gangs diverted their illegal weapons and drug trade routes through Honduras and “turned it into the principal handover point for cocaine to Mexican cartels,” InSight Crime reported.
Although it’s unclear how many migrant children were sent back directly from Border Patrol custody, under a 2008 federal anti-trafficking statute, unaccompanied minors from Central America are not immediately deported, but instead given a court hearing before they can be put into deportation proceedings. Minors from the two contiguous countries of Mexico and Canada are allowed to be sent back immediately.
Children also have different outcomes based on the immigration judge they are assigned. Some judges are more sympathetic than others, with some of the highest denial rates for asylum — another kind of relief granted to unaccompanied children whose home governments have failed them — hovering around 95 percent.
Virginia received about 3,900 unaccompanied minors from the Latin American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico between January and October 2014. As the Obama administration directed courts to prioritize unaccompanied minors’ court cases above other immigrants, attorneys like Marritz have been flooded with requests to accommodate an already full docket.
In the Arlington immigration courtroom attended by ThinkProgress, one sympathetic judge prioritized the legal proceedings of children with representatives ahead of children who needed a court interpreter and children without lawyers. The interpreter ran 20 minutes late because she was delayed translating for another immigration judge down the hall. When a Guatemalan teen approached the bench alone, the judge asked, “Are there any attorneys in the room?” a request that prompted more than half a dozen hands to shoot up in the air. Marritz, whose hand was also up in the air, whispered to ThinkProgress that he would volunteer, but that his caseload was “so full.” Though immigration courts have sped up the deportation proceedings of these so-called “rocket dockets,” in the six or seven represented cases leading up to 535’s case, the judge gave continuances for children to come back to court in July 2015 with more time to prepare.