As soon as Ana* emerged from her most recent immigration court appearance, a team of volunteers from the New Sanctuary Coalition surrounded her. It was a Thursday afternoon in March, and the group of volunteers had traveled from neighborhoods throughout New York City early that morning to hover in the courthouse waiting room and offer encouragement.
“How are you feeling?” someone asked cheerfully.
Ana’s boyfriend, Rodrigo, put his hand on her chest to feel her racing heartbeat.
“Still nervous,” Ana said in Spanish, a slight smile creeping across her face.
It was a little after 1 pm, more than four hours since Ana had taken off her boots and walked through the courthouse’s airport-style security checkpoint in pink fuzzy socks. It was the fourth time she said she had to appear before a judge since she had arrived from Honduras four years earlier, at age 16, amid a wave of unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence and poverty throughout Central America. On each of these occasions, she faced the judge on her own, without an attorney.
“She’s always very nervous the night before court,” Rodrigo said of Ana, who had turned 20 just the day before. “She cries, and she gets really scared. I tell her, ‘It’s OK. You have all these people with you.’” He gestured toward nearby volunteers from the New Sanctuary Coalition, whose members accompany immigrants without attorney representation to court in order to provide emotional support and demonstrate solidarity.
Though the group provided reassurance throughout the morning, Ana still had to approach the judge alone, with only a court-appointed translator at her side. At the hearing, the immigration judge verified her current address and instructed her to attend family court to file a petition for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or SIJS, a classification for undocumented immigrants under the age of 21 who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by at least one parent. Leading up to the proceeding, Ana said she felt nervous because she had received conflicting information about her eligibility for relief and feared she might be detained.
“People have told me I might not qualify for [SIJS],” she said in Spanish. “I never know what’s going to happen when I’m here in court and I still don’t have a lawyer.”
As Ana explains, she decided to leave Honduras after other young people in her hometown posted nude photos of her on Facebook, leading family members to beat her and another man to threaten her. To get to the United States, she traveled through Mexico in a series of minivans, taxis, and buses with the help of a coyote. But not far from the border, she said, the coyote demanded more money, which neither she nor her mother, who remained in Honduras, could afford to pay. The coyote then threatened to leave her in Mexico with a local gang unless she had sex with his son.