Growing up with dysfunctional parents is tough for any kid, but to suffer abuse and be neglected and abandoned is much more frightening. A recent California Court of Appeals case illustrates the possible immigration consequences of this sad situation, and shows how sometimes the court gets it wrong.
Arrest at liquor store sends teen to juvenile court
In the case of Leslie H. v Superior Court, an ill-advised attempt by a 16-year-old girl and her girlfriends to steal several bottles of alcoholic beverages and cigars turned into a melee, ending with the teen being arrested for assault and burglary, being found a ward of the court and committed to juvenile hall for 120 days.
The teen filed a request with the juvenile court so she could apply for classification as an abused, neglected or abandoned special immigration juvenile (SIJ) under federal law. However, the juvenile court was adamant that since "she broke the law," she was not eligible to remain in the United States as an abandoned and abused child. The court decided that Congress did not mean to allow juvenile aliens to be "rewarded" with SIJ status, and went on to opine that other undocumented alien children could be motivated to commit offenses to gain eventual nationalization.
Girl begs grandmother to rescue her
Leslie's abuse and abandonment began when her mother brought her from Mexico to live with her grandmother in Orange County. Her parents were much more interested in drinking and partying all night rather than in taking care of their nine-month-old daughter. The mother was unemployed and often left the little girl alone in the house without being fed.
After returning to Mexico with her mother at age 5, Leslie called her grandmother in the United States to tell her of the abuse her alcoholic mother was inflicting on her, how she would be tied to a chair all night alone, punched, slapped and beaten. She only met her father one time while in Mexico, and never lived with him there or in the United States. He failed to send funds to support her or attempt to contact his daughter; she thought he was jailed in Mexico.
She was delivered back to her grandmother's home at age seven; she had a brother who lived with the grandmother for a time, but he was deported following his arrest for domestic violence. Neither Leslie nor her grandmother knew of his whereabouts.
Immigration policy beyond juvenile court's scope
The Appeals Court said the juvenile court is only charged with determining specific factual issues, limited to whether the juvenile is under the age of 21 and unmarried, is dependent on the court through a court order, whether reunification is not possible due to abuse, neglect or abandonment, and if it is in the child's best interests to be returned to her country of nationality.
The court found nothing in the federal law allowing state juvenile courts to "pre-screen SIJ applicants for possible abuse," saying it was unreasonable for the juvenile court to conclude that the teen should be sent back to Mexico "alone, with no one to care for her." The court ruled that the juvenile court based its findings on "anecdotal impressions, untethered to any evidence in this case," directing it to enter a new order allowing Leslie to file for SIJ status.
Protecting children who have been abused and neglected can be accomplished through immigration procedures. Family members assisting a juvenile in immigration matters need competent and experienced representation to make sure the state and federal laws are being followed.