In October 2015, Lucia, 13, was raped and impregnated. When she told her parents, they called her a “cualquiera,” or “slut,” and tried to send her from their home in Florida back to Guatemala. A case worker had to inform Lucia’s parents that they couldn’t dispatch their daughter against her wishes to another country. Unable to discard her, Lucia’s parents forbade her from reporting her rape to the local police. Instead, they demanded that she extort her rapist. But ICE deported him before he could be blackmailed. Finally, when she was four or five months pregnant, Lucia’s parents told her she needed to pay her “debts,” so Lucia dropped out of high school and got a job at a plant nursery. At that time, her parents began to charge her $350 a month in rent.
To Lucia’s attorney, Rina Gil, her story was an obvious example of parental neglect and abuse, and Lucia, an undocumented minor, should therefore be eligible to apply for a green card under a program called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). (Because she is a minor and victim of abuse, Lucia’s name has been changed to protect her identity.)
In September 2017, Gil, a staff attorney at Catholic Legal Services in Miami, filed a private petition for dependency, asking the Miami juvenile court to declare Lucia dependent on the state of Florida and therefore not eligible for deportation. Gil knew that for the past few years juvenile judges in Florida had been skeptical of dependency petitions filed by immigrant minors, but she thought that, since the abuse happened in Florida, Judge Cindy Lederman would look compassionately at Lucia’s case. Gil had even heard that Lederman was more understanding than other Florida judges “when it comes to immigrant cases.”
“I figured—this is a child. She was raped… She’s not in school. She has no one taking care of her. There’s no way that you can say that this child was not neglected or abused or abandoned,” Gil said.
Despite acknowledging Lucia’s father’s mistreatment, the judge denied her dependency and, with it, her best shot at protection from abuse and deportation. “I just don’t know what happened that day,” Gil told me.
Since the fall of 2013, around 175,000 immigrant minors, mostly from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, have arrived at the US-Mexico border asking for protection and resettlement. When unaccompanied minors are detained, ICE transfers them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which sends the children to stay with any family or friends they might have in the United States while they wait for an immigration-court hearing.
Many of these children have suffered abuse or neglect or have been wholly or partially abandoned by their parents and therefore qualify for SIJS. This status allows children to apply for a green card and eventually citizenship, with the caveat that they can never apply for immigration relief for their parents.