Citing Deportation Threat, L.A. Will Offer Legal Help to Some Foster Youth

A young boy facing deportation proceedings without legal representation, as shown in the film "Unaccompanied: Alone in America."
A young boy facing deportation proceedings without legal representation, as shown in the film “Unaccompanied: Alone in America.” Photo credit: Linda Freedman

Los Angeles County leaders have approved new funding to provide immigration lawyers for foster youth, citing changes to federal policies that have made it more difficult and risky to address the rights of abused and neglected youth in the immigration system.

The Board of Supervisors approved a $250,000, one-year contract between the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and a so-far undetermined immigration law group.

“For many years, often in partnership with legal aid organizations, DCFS capably addressed our children’s interests in the immigration court,” Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement provided to The Chronicle of Social Change. “However, due to the shift in immigration practices at the federal level, immigrant children in DCFS custody now require more intensive and extensive legal assistance to ensure their rights and interests are protected.”

Many undocumented youth who wind up in the foster care system are eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a unique legal classification that allows immigrant children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents to legally stay in the country.

The 1990 creation of SIJS was specifically designed to protect foster youth for whom family reunification was not an option. Since then, the law has expanded to allow eligibility to obtain a green card for immigrant youth, including those in the juvenile justice system or those living with a legal guardian.

Both the current and previous administrations have complicated the process of obtaining SIJS in several ways.

In 2016, the Obama administration centralized SIJS adjudications, routing all applications through the National Benefits Center at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), rather than local field offices. This has slowed down the processing time for each SIJS application.

“I think when they were at local offices, those offices got really familiar with state law,” said Rachel Prandini with the Immigration Legal Resource Center (ILRC).

What used to take six months to a year could now take as long as three years, according to Leslie Heimov, executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California. The result is a huge backlog of foster youth waiting for immigration relief.

More than 300 foster youth in L.A. have pending SIJS cases that need assistance, and an additional 20 to 40 youth enter the system each month that could have immigration needs in the future, Heimov said.

Since Trump has taken office, a handful of policies and implementation instructions have made applying increasingly complex and high-stakes.

Most concerning to advocates is a policy memorandum dated June 28 of this year that indicated that, barring a few exemptions, youth with rejected applications are to be referred to removal — or deportation — proceedings.

This, for the first time, has created a possible downside to seeking SIJS status. “[It] just changes the whole risk calculus for even applying,” Prandini said.

The Trump administration has also instructed USCIS judges that if they had any questions after reviewing a SIJS application, it should be rejected. Before, judges had referred those applications back to supporters of the child.

“Now, under a new policy they’ve directed, they should just issue a straight denial,” rather than giving applicants a chance to provide additional support for their case, said Prandini of ILRC.

As a result, what was once a simple application form that caseworkers could easily fill out now essentially requires a full legal brief that preemptively answers any questions that might arise, according to Svidler.

The new administration’s efforts to sharply curtail immigration came within days of Trump’s inauguration. A Jan. 25, 2017 executive order required that all sponsors of unaccompanied minors must be vetted for immigration status. While L.A.’s decision to provide legal aid wasn’t designed to address the needs of unaccompanied minor immigrants or the children who were separated from their families at the border under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, the treatment of U.S. residents sponsoring these unaccompanied youth does play a role in the issue.

“In the past, those sponsors have not had to be documented, [and] there’s been a kind of policy of ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’” said Luciana Svidler, a policy associate at CLC.

Under the new policy, “some sponsors have decided — once the youth was released to them — ‘I can’t sponsor this youth because I don’t want to involve myself with immigration,’” Svidler said. Since these youth are already in the states and no longer in the custody of the federal government, they can wind up in the child welfare system and in need of immigration assistance if they’re abandoned by their U.S. sponsor.

This summer’s zero-tolerance policy may well compound the SIJS backlog, according to Abigail Trillin with the nonprofit Legal Services for Children. By separating children from their parents and deporting the adults, the government effectively conjured up thousands of newly unaccompanied minors who could now end up in local foster care systems seeking immigration relief, Trillin said.

One group of SIJS-seeking youth have already seen the consequences of the Trump administration’s stance on immigration.

This past spring, USCIS started rejecting all SIJS applications for 18- to 20- year-olds who are under the care of a juvenile court. Late last month, a federal judge in California issued a stay on all new denials and on referring already denied applicants for deportation. But that only protects youth in California, and only temporarily.

Across the board, advocates are applauding L.A.’s move to provide assistance to the undocumented youth in its care. There is no guaranteed right to immigration counsel for youth in the foster care system in California or on the federal level.

“The landscape is changing so quickly that we need the people helping these kids to be at the top of the field so that they can make good strategic decisions,” Heimov said.

The new legal assistance will not be used to bring migrant children into the folds of the child welfare system to protect them from deportation.

“These are children who are already child welfare clients,” Heimov said. “We’re not bringing in a new group of kids who are here who only have immigration issues. The kids that this motion refers to are kids who have been found to be victims of abuse and neglect and have immigration issues.”

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 88 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change