Until February 28, 2014, Leslie, a sixteen-year-old girl residing in California, faced deportation to Mexico because the Superior Court of Orange County refused to find that deportation was contrary to her best interests—a necessary finding to apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a form of immigration relief for children who were abused, neglected, or abandoned by a parent. This despite evidence that her only relatives in Mexico were an abusive mother and a father who had abandoned her. The California State Court of Appeals for the Fourth Appellate District issued a writ of mandate vacating the order that had denied Leslie relief. The appellate court directed the juvenile court to enter a new order sustaining the requisite findings and enabling Leslie to apply for SIJS. The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights filed an amicus brief in the case, drafted by University of Chicago Law School students Courtney Cox (’14) and Kate Long (’14) and supervised by Policy Director Jennifer Nagda (’04), which argued that Leslie’s petition for a writ should be granted.
Congress created SIJS in 1990 to provide protection for abused, neglected, and abandoned undocumented minors for whom it is not in their best interests to return to their countries of origin. This status allows these children to become lawful permanent residents of the United States. While the federal government retains the authority to grant or deny a child’s SIJS petition, state juvenile courts are charged with making a preliminary determination of the child’s dependency and best interests, a prerequisite to applying for SIJS. In this case, Leslie, who had lived most of her life in California with her grandmother, faced deportation to Mexico, where there was no responsible adult to care for her. The juvenile court declined to issue the predicate order, erroneously finding that Leslie did not meet the dependency criteria, that parental reunification was viable, and that it would be in Leslie’s best interests to be returned to her parents in Mexico, despite uncontroverted evidence to the contrary.
In their amicus brief Young Center clinic students Cox and Long argued that the juvenile court erred in basing its best interests determination on stereotypes about Mexican immigrant families, rather than making an individualized decision based on Leslie’s unique history. In its opinion, the court speculated that Leslie would be better off returning to Mexico because Mexican immigrant families with “minors who have encountered difficulty with the law” frequently “send their children back to Mexico to get them out of the negative environment that has placed them in the juvenile court.” The Young Center argued that such generalizations undermine a best interests analysis. We also argued that because a child’s safety and the availability of a responsible adult caregiver are paramount considerations in any best interests determination, separating Leslie from her grandmother would violate fundamental principles of family unity found in domestic child welfare law and international law, and reflected in recent changes to federal immigration policy.
In granting Leslie’s writ relief, the appellate court embraced the Young Center’s arguments, explaining that the juvenile court’s findings were improperly influenced by “misplaced policy conclusions” and based on “anecdotal impressions, untethered to any evidence in [the] case.” The appellate court explained: “A state court’s role in the SIJ process is not to determine worthy candidates for citizenship, but simply to identify abused, neglected or abandoned alien children under its jurisdiction who cannot reunify with a parent or be safely returned in their best interests to their home country.” The appellate court concluded that Leslie met the dependency criterion, that “the facts overwhelmingly establish Leslie’s reunification with one or both of her parents was not viable due to abuse, neglect, and abandonment,” and that “nothing in the record supported the juvenile court’s conclusions that repatriation to Mexico was in Leslie’s best interests.” The appellate court noted that Leslie “as an unaccompanied minor ha[s] no one to return to safely in Mexico,” and agreed that “[b]y all accounts, Leslie’s grandmother [is] her only refuge.”
“Working on this case was such a great experience,” third-year law student Kate Long explained. “I hope that the precedent set by the appellate court will ensure that other children in Leslie’s situation receive the individualized best interests determinations they are entitled to.” Third-year law student Courtney Cox added: “We are particularly pleased to have succeeded on facts that might appear unsympathetic—if you forget that the petitioner was a child who survived severe abuse and faced permanent separation from her grandmother, the only adult who had ever cared for her. Leslie came before the juvenile court as a juvenile delinquent, and the juvenile court failed to consider her best interests individually as a result. But the appellate court rightly recognized that a child’s mistakes should not result in her permanent separation from family or her repatriation to an unsafe situation in home country.” The Young Center’s amicus brief was filed in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project and was joined by the University of California Hastings College of the Law’s Center for Gender & Refugee Studies.