Latin American Association (LAA) has seen a rise in unaccompanied immigrants under 18 seeking legal representation
ATLANTA, GA (PR) - The United States has seen a recent surge in the number of minors crossing the Mexico-U.S. border without their parents. Though border states such as Texas and Arizona have been on the front lines of this new wave of immigration, Georgia, which is one of the top destinations for Hispanic immigrants, is also seeing a rise in the number of undocumented immigrants under 18 without a parent or legal guardian.
LAA immigration attorney Jessica Daman has been representing unaccompanied minors who are in deportation proceedings for the past couple of years. She answers questions about this phenomenon.
How many unaccompanied children are arriving in the U.S.?
Two years ago, about 8,000 children were caught at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But over the past year we have seen this number skyrocket, even in recent months. Through the fiscal year that ends on Sep. 30, the federal government is projecting that it will apprehend around 60,000 unaccompanied minor children. I have heard estimates that next fiscal year that number could jump to 100,000.
Where are these children coming from, and why?
They are coming mostly from Central America, from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and they come to the U.S. fleeing violence or instability in their home countries or escaping violence and abuse in their homes. Some children come to the U.S. seeking reunification with family members who came to the U.S. first.
Why are these children arriving in Georgia? And what happens to them?
Georgia is no. 10 when it comes to states with the largest Hispanic population, and it also has one of the fastest- growing Hispanic populations, so a lot of these kids end up in Georgia. These minors are reunited with family members in Georgia once they go through a process with the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Once here, they are in deportation proceedings and need legal representation. In just the past six or eight months, the number of unaccompanied children calling us and seeking legal representation has jumped considerably.
Do most of these children end up deported, or is there some immigration relief for them?
Many unaccompanied minors are eligible for an immigration remedy known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Immigrant Status (SIJS), which is available to children who are present in the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian. In SIJS cases, a juvenile court judge must rule that reunification with one or both of the child's parents is not viable and that it is not in the child's best interest to be returned to his/her home country.
However, many children who are eligible do not get SIJS because they do not have legal representation. To be eligible for SIJS, the children must also have suffered some form of abuse, abandonment or neglect. Obtaining SIJS requires rulings from both state and federal courts.Juveniles who are approved for SIJS get a green card, which allows them to live and work permanently in the U.S., and after five years, or when they turn 18, they become U.S. citizens. This status changes the whole life trajectory for a child.
About how many minors have you represented in SIJS cases?
In the past two years here at the LAA, I have represented 80 children from start to finish in SIJS cases. I have had to adjust my caseloads and now have entire days in which I see nothing but children for legal consultations. When I first started here in May 2012, maybe 1 consultation out of a day of 8 to 10 consultations was for these kids.
Daman recently talked to WABE's Martha Dalton about the surge in unaccompanied minors in Georgia.
LAA attorney Jessica Daman has seen a surge in the number of unaccompanied minors seeking legal representation in deportation proceedings.
Help to Minors Who Immigrate to the U.S. Alone
Nine-year-old boy who came from Honduras in 2012 now enjoys U.S. residence, dreams of college
At age 9, Jhostin left his home in coastal Honduras with just a suitcase and a backpack and came to the United States with dreams of a better life. Accompanied by his 18-year-old uncle, Jhostin, who was traveling without a passport, ultimately reunited with his grandmother in Georgia.
Among the highlights of his weeks-long journey: crossing the Rio Grande on a floater, being detained in the desert after the duo was abandoned by their smuggler, separating from his uncle, two nights in juvenile jail in Texas and a stint with other immigrant children at a facility in Chicago.
Jhostin, who is now 11, arrived in Atlanta in the fall of 2012 uncertain of his fate. But less than two years after his frightening journey, his future is looking brighter. Earlier this year, Jhostin, who was represented by LAA immigration attorney Jessica Daman, became a permanent resident of the U.S. thanks to an immigration remedy known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) for unaccompanied immigrant children who are unable to go back to their home country because they have been victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment. (Jhostin was eligible for SIJS because his father had abandoned him and his mother was unable to provide economically for him). When he turns 18, Jhostin will be eligible for citizenship. He is now at ease and relishing his new immigration status.
"I am not afraid to be deported or worried that I am going to have immigration problems. I am already a resident," says Jhostin in Spanish. "My blood is Honduran but I consider myself an American."
Though he misses his mom and brother, and has yet to meet his new baby sister, Jhostin is indeed enjoying his American life in Norcross, where he lives with his grandmother, who is now his legal guardian, and her husband. He delights in things we take for granted, like air conditioning and hot water. "I used to shower with very cold water," he says. "And we didn't have a lot of food."
Jhostin, a rising sixth grader, enjoys math and science. He loves playing with Legos and HotWheels cars. And he writes songs in English.
"I don't get bored at home," he says. "I have two computers and I enjoy playing video games."
Jhostin talks of attending Georgia Gwinnett College and dreams of becoming a doctor, lawyer or pilot, or perhaps joining the Army at 21.
Jhostin says he left Honduras because his mom encouraged him to come to the United States in search of a better life. "She made the decision that I come here. At first I didn't want to," he says.
"She told me that in the U.S. there were more opportunities."
Though he was frightened during his journey, which he did mostly by bus, Jhostin says he was treated well when he spent two nights in jail. "They brought me a lot of food and would give me gifts," he says. And when he was at the juvenile facility in Chicago for three weeks, he was surrounded by other immigrant children and they would all eat together and watch movies together, and even go on outings.
While in Chicago, he was allowed to talk to his grandmother every night for five minutes.
"Every day he would tell me 'I am arriving tomorrow,' " says his grandmother.
He finally did. On Sept. 21, 2012, wearing a red polo shirt, he arrived in Atlanta by plane.