Immigrant Children Need More Protection: Esther J. Cepeda

Immigrant Children Need More Protection: Esther J. Cepeda

"Even though our maddening and broken immigration system probably won’t be reformed for at least another few years, small pockets of common sense can be found in the midst of it all.

Take a recent decision in a New York state appellate court clarifying a 1990 statute—called Special Immigration Juvenile Status (SIJS)—which allows abused, neglected or abandoned undocumented immigrant children to apply for asylum in the United States.

The ruling in Marcelina M.-G. v. Israel S. is precedent-setting because immigration laws are not uniform across the states, nor are each state’s immigration laws always in agreement with federal statutes. This makes for lots of cracks for potentially eligible people to fall through.

The case, involving a then-10-year-old girl from Honduras who fled an abusive home in a violence-scarred country, makes clear that immigrant children who have been abandoned, neglected or abused by one parent—as opposed to by both parents—are eligible for SIJS, which affords them greater protections and the opportunity to legalize their status in the United States.

The legal complexity of this case illustrates its significance. The appellate-court decision overturned a lower court’s decision that rested on the idea that a child petitioner for legal status under SIJS would have to conclusively prove that he or she had been abandoned by both parents to be eligible for the protected status.

It also clarifies the interpretation of the SIJS statute for all New York courts. (The case was decided in the state court because, while SIJS was created by Congress, determination of a petitioner’s status must be made through a state, and usually a juvenile, court.)

As far as Paul Hastings, LLP—the pro bono law firm working on this case—knows, it’s the first appellate-court decision in New York to squarely address this issue (lower courts had previously reached conflicting decisions) and an important national precedent in efforts to secure SIJS for children.

Kevin Broughel, the attorney representing the young Honduran girl, told me that this one clarification will have a tremendous ripple effect on the thousands of children who, every year, face the U.S. immigration court system without parents or family—and often without any legal assistance." - Esther J. Cepeda, Nov. 30, 2013.