About two and a half years ago, 29-year-old Judith* got a phone call from Maria,* her 9-year-old half-sister in México, to inform her that their mom had just died. Maria’s father had passed away the year before.
The girl told her big sister in Los Angeles that she did not want to be alone.
“I knew right away that I couldn’t leave my sister by herself,” said Judith, an unauthorized immigrant. “That same day, I got on an airplane to be with her. I knew I had to find a way to bring her here to live with me and my husband.”
Judith spent the following nine months in Mexico until she got custody of Maria. Then it was off to L.A. to try to do the same once more.
Once in L.A., Judith had to go through Los Angeles County’s Probate Court in order to become Maria’s legal guardian. The county’s juvenile dependency courts also hear guardianship cases for children already in the foster care system. For children like Maria, establishing legal guardianship can mean assistance and in some cases, a pathway to citizenship through the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status program.
“I have to be honest,” Judith said. “I was scared [of going to probate court]. My husband asked me to really think about it, that we are not legal immigrants and [that] I was putting my stay here in jeopardy by going to court.”
Attorney Juan Guzman, from the non-profit Alliance for Children’s Rights, explained that many caregivers are hesitant to step up to the plate to serve as foster parents in dependency and probate courts because they have to go through an extensive background check process that includes fingerprinting. Sometimes caregivers do not want children placed in their homes, Guzman said, for fear that the process may make Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) aware of their immigration status.
According to the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), guardians and foster parents do not need to have legal residency or U.S. citizenship to care for children. The agency does not track the immigration status of its caregivers.
“Generally, we do an excellent job of placing foster children with relatives – over half of our children who are in out-of-home care are with relatives,” said Armand Montiel, director of communications for DCFS.
DCFS conducts background checks requested by the Probate Court for applicants for legal guardianship and foster care. Fingerprints are required in most cases. However, they do not keep records of the immigration status of caregivers. A valid consulate ID card or foreign-issued passport is often enough to establish identity.
New Level of Fear
After last year’s presidential election, Alliance lawyers like Guzman started seeing an increased fear of deportation among their clients.
“I have been here at the Alliance for three years, and it’s not until this year that we’ve seen the fear in our clients,” Guzman said. “They ask, ‘Will I get deported? Will ICE be there? Will my immigrations status be brought up?’”
In Judith’s case, she was able to overcome her fear thanks to the strong emotional bond she has with Maria.
“Since Maria’s birth I felt a special connection with her,” Judith said. “Maybe it’s the age difference, but I always felt like her mom. Now I have the chance to be there for her, protect her and make sure she grows up feeling loved now that our mother is not around.”
The Alliance for Children’s Rights estimates that about 300,000 kids in Los Angeles County live with informal caregivers, often family members who help out without any formal legal status or assistance.
Legal guardians could get between $350 to $380 a month from CalWorks when they get custody, regardless of immigration status, Guzman said. CalWorks is California’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program and provides cash and services to eligible families with children.
Little Maria is thin, with a big, easy smile. She often babysits Judith’s 9-month-old baby, Fernanda.
Judith can’t imagine her life without both of the girls.
“Both are my daughters,” she said. “I am not Maria’s birth mom, but it does not matter – my husband and I treat them the same. We love them the same. Maria would not be happier or safer anywhere else.”
Guzman advised Judith that Maria could become a legal immigrant if they continue with the legal process in the court system, thanks to the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status program. The immigration fee for Maria’s green card could also be waived and, on top of everything, Guzman’s services are provided free of charge.
Maria’s future in the U.S. looks bright, like her smile. If everything goes as planned, Maria’s dreams of becoming a midwife or a doctor could become her reality.
“I want to help pregnant women have their children – that’s what I want to do when I grow up,” Maria said.
*The names of the people named in this story were changed to protect their privacy.
Yurina Melara is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. For 11 years, she covered public health for La Opinión, the largest Spanish daily newspaper in the United States. You can find her on Twitter at @YurinaMelara.