Monday, June 25, 2007

Green cards go unclaimed by many youths in foster care
Certain abused or abandoned dependents of the state are eligible for legal residency - b
ut not all know the law
Gorman, Anna. Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2007.

Abused children throughout California and the nation who are undocumented but entitled to green cards are frequently not receiving them — putting them at risk of deportation and drastically limiting their educational and work opportunities.

Under federal law, certain abused, neglected or abandoned dependents of the state are eligible for legal residency, but officials in many counties are unaware of the benefit. As a result, many youths leave foster care as illegal immigrants, social workers and advocates say.

After a childhood of abuse, Viridiana Garcia, 23, spent her teenage years in and out of group homes, mental hospitals and foster families. She should have received her green card and become a U.S. citizen years ago. Instead, Garcia, who lives with her 5-month-old twins in Santa Barbara County, is still undocumented.

"It's hard because I want to walk like a free person," she said. "I'm worried I might get caught and sent back to Mexico."

Congress passed the law in 1990 to grant legal status to several classes of vulnerable children.

Los Angeles County is among the few areas where the law works well, experts said. The county's program is seen as a model nationwide, because social workers, judges, immigration officials and pro bono lawyers work together to ensure that eligible juveniles get green cards.

But elsewhere around the nation, the law is not implemented as consistently, according to a 2006 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which supports programs that help vulnerable children and families. The report cited several problems, including unnecessary delays by immigration officials.

To get a green card, the youths must be unmarried, under 21 and abused, abandoned or neglected. Youths in dependency or delinquency proceedings or in Probate Court are eligible.

Though the government doesn't specifically track the number of young people who receive Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, 634 Juvenile Court dependents nationwide were granted permanent residency in 2004, 679 in 2005 and 912 in 2006, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics.

Advocates say they do not know how many more youths nationwide may be eligible, but estimates are in the thousands.

"If you look at the number of immigrants coming into this country and the number of unaccompanied minors coming into the country, it's shocking," said Sally Kinoshita, a staff lawyer at San Francisco's Immigrant Legal Resource Center who wrote a manual about the benefit. "The number of people who have received Special Immigrant Juvenile Status is not at all a reflection of the number that would be eligible for it."

The failures — though unwitting — are an abrogation of the counties' commitment to children they have brought into their welfare systems and agreed to help raise, said Ken Borelli, retired deputy director of Santa Clara County's Department of Children and Family Services, who helped draft the law.

"What are their options if their legal status isn't resolved?" Borelli asked.

To raise awareness, advocates and government officials are conducting training sessions for judges, social workers, lawyers and youths around the country, including in rural areas where immigrants are just beginning to settle.

"It just takes one person to identify that someone is eligible," said Kristen Jackson, a lawyer at Public Counsel in Los Angeles who has represented hundreds of juveniles.

Karen Grace-Kaho, ombudsman for foster care with the state Department of Social Services, said some undocumented foster youth may be better off in their native countries if they have supportive relatives. But many were brought to the U.S. when they were young and don't speak their parents' native language, Grace-Kaho said.

"That would be a severe hardship for them to go back to their country," she said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tight controls on immigration, said the benefit was necessary for some children but added that green cards should be approved sparingly.

"Some judges are going to be somber, careful and use it as a last resort," Krikorian said. "Others are going to see it as an opportunity to do whatever they want to do."

Fany Almendarez received her green card last year, just before she turned 21. Raised in Honduras by her grandmother, Almendarez sneaked across the border as a teenager to live with her mother in Los Angeles. But soon after her arrival, she said, her stepfather abused one of her sisters and she was placed in foster care. Then her mother died of cancer.


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