By Eunice Gedeon Linot
Arriving in New York City for a new life, my five-year-old mind raced with the possibilities: new friends, a new school, a new neighborhood (Brooklyn) and best of all, a reunion with the parents who had made the difficult but necessary decision to leave me back in Haiti with my grandparents while Mom and Dad built us a new life here in America.
Fast-forward several decades. That shy, Creole-speaking girl has grown into a college and law school graduate, a wife, mother, attorney, taxpayer and, for nearly 30 years, a U.S. citizen.
Crucially, our family had the means and the support to navigate the immigration journey together, although only after a two-year delay while my parents got settled in their new home. Of course, many others in such circumstances lack this kind of support – a glaring need that largely shaped my own personal and professional path as a new American.
After graduating from Ave Maria School of Law in Naples and then working in private practice, I joined the Lee County Legal Aid Society. That’s where I now oversee an innovative outreach effort to assist immigrant children and teens those who have been abandoned, entered the country alone, or are victims of human trafficking.
The three-year effort began late last year and is funded by a federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant of roughly $490,000, administered by the United Way of Lee, Hendry, and Glades Counties.
Working in cooperation with a host of community partners, including the aforementioned United Way as well as Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Venice, Guardian ad Litem, 20th Judicial Circuit, Lee County Injury Prevention Coalition and more, we provide no-cost legal representation – and critically, a path to legal citizenship – for abused, neglected and abandoned youth under age 18 who, through no fault of their own, wind up in our community with no adults in their lives and with nowhere to turn.
Some are in foster care but will soon age out of the system, or were brought here against their will by human traffickers. Rather than a punitive approach, this new effort provides these minors with the opportunity to earn a green card and legally live, work, study and pay taxes in the U.S., strengthening our community while bolstering our economy and quality of life.
The pathway to legal citizenship begins with a petition before Lee County Family Court 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” and obtain 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, the case is sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for consideration of an adjustment of status to lawful permanent residency. That classification then allows those clients to apply for a work permit and Social Security card.
That was the path taken by our client Wilson, who came to this country on his own three years ago from Guatemala and was placed in foster care after running away from a Florida Department of Children and Families facility (To protect the privacy of Wilson and other clients, we only refer to them here by their first names, or pseudonyms).
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.
For most, their journeys to this point are beyond harrowing. 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.
Lola, now 16, is enrolled in Lee County schools and living here with an aunt. She hopes to study nursing and dreams of one day becoming a surgeon.
As a private, nonprofit organization, the Lee County Legal Aid Society has provided no-cost, civil legal aid to low-income residents of our community for more than a half-century. 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 to narrow the access to justice gap in civil cases – and stand ready to zealously advocate for those in need of assistance, including society’s most vulnerable.