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Guest Commentary | Legal aid for children, teens with nowhere else to turn

By EUNICE GEDEON LINOT - Immigration services and Florida family law attorney/Lee County Legal Aid Society | Jul 5, 2024

For nearly 60 years, the nonprofit Lee County Legal Aid Society has provided no-cost, civil legal aid to low-income residents of our community. Our newest effort: help establish a pathway to permanent legal residency for abused, neglected and abandoned immigrant children and teens with nowhere else to turn.

Through no fault of their own, far too many children and teens from other countries wind up in our community with no adults in their lives. Some have aged out of the foster care system or were brought here under tragic circumstances by human traffickers.

Our ability to advocate on behalf of these vulnerable minors was previously limited. But with the support of a federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant administered by the United Way of Lee, Hendry, and Glades Counties, our agency has filed more than 50 court petitions seeking legal safeguards for youth who crave the opportunity to legally live, work and study in the U.S.

The benefits are reciprocal: following this roadmap to residency not only strengthens our community’s fabric but also bolsters our economy and quality of life.

The process begins in Lee County Family Court with a petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). The SIJS designation is a special visa category established by Congress in 1990 that permits immigrant children who are dependent on a juvenile court to “self-petition” for lawful permanent resident status.

The juvenile court must first determine that family reunification is not a viable option, and that it is not in the child’s best interest to return to their home country.

Once the dependency petition is approved, we submit the I-360 Form, Petition for Special Immigration Juvenile Status to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for consideration. Once the I-360 is approved, the child is awarded classification of Special Immigrant Juvenile with Deferred Action.

That classification then allows those clients to apply for a work permit and Social Security card. The clients are typically issued a four-year work permit and a Social Security card.

Once a visa becomes available, the client can apply for a green card by filing an application for Permanent Resident Status, a process that can take four or five years due to backlogs.

That’s the path being taken by our client Wilson, who came to this country on his own from Guatemala and was placed in foster care after running away from a Florida Department of Children and Families facility. To protect Wilson’s privacy, we only refer to him by first name.

With his SIJS status in hand, Wilson is now working in the Fort Myers area, has secured housing and is a new father — with the hopes now of providing a far better life for his own child in a safe, secure and healthy environment.

Another client, Lola, came to us as a 14-year-old who ran away from home in Honduras to escape a drug- and alcohol-addicted mother and a father who, once his child turned 12, insisted she either work full-time or get married.

Working with these young people reminds me of my own childhood, when my parents left me behind in Haiti with grandparents for two years while Mom and Dad built us a new life here in America. Crucially, our family had the means and the support to navigate the immigration journey — including gaining U.S. citizenship — together.

At Lee County Legal Aid Society, our work narrows the access to justice gap among those who cannot afford a private attorney in civil cases. Unlike in criminal law, there is no Constitutional right to an attorney in civil law, which includes landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, evictions, probate, debt collection, child custody cases, domestic violence orders of protection and more.

We’re deeply appreciative of our community partners in this renewed effort- and stand ready to zealously advocate for those in need of assistance, including society’s most vulnerable.

For more information, visit www.leecountylegalaid.org or call 239-334-6118

Eunice Gedeon Linot is an immigration services and Florida family law attorney with the Lee County Legal Aid Society.