In a recent story in the Albany Times Union, reporter Mallory Moench paints a different picture about juvenile asylum seekers as compared to recent stories about caravans purportedly composed of gang members and Middle Eastern terrorists.
In the report we meet Rosa, who left El Salvador as a young adolescent after being targeted by a gang intending to prostitute her. To prevent becoming sexually exploited, she left her parents and crossed the border. She has been living in the Capital Region of New York for the past two years.
Rosa, now 17, is undocumented and is seeking special immigrant juvenile status that would enable her to apply for a green card which permits a foreign national to live and work permanently in the U.S.
Rosa understands that she could be denied and deported. More than 12,500 undocumented young people have participated in immigration court this year alone. For those without a lawyer, the odds of deportation are much greater.
According to the Albany Times Union report, “If juveniles [under the age of 21] have a relative who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder, they can apply for a family-based petition. If they are victims of trafficking, domestic violence or another crime they can apply for crime victim visas. If they’re fleeing persecution like Rosa, they can apply for asylum. If they’re missing one or more parents they’re eligible for special immigrant juvenile status.”
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had taken measures to fast-track deportations. Consequently, many juveniles may be sent back to their homelands—and the dangers and threats that await them—before legal proceedings are implemented.
Many of the young people living in New York’s Capital Region, ages 12 to 19, came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Mexico after being confronted with gang violence. The profile and numbers of refugees on Long Island is similar. It is ironic that with the incendiary political rhetoric of the day, many asylum seekers have been labeled gang members, when it is gangs that they are trying to escape from.
Many young migrants endured trauma in their passage to the U.S. They faced starvation, violence and abandonment.
There are only two immigration courts in all of New York. One is located in New York City and the other is in Buffalo. For many asylum seekers, the cost for transportation to court hearings prevents them from following through. For example, for those living in the Capital Region, a bus ride can be as much as $100 and more than $500 for private transportation.
This is especially daunting when they are living in poverty.
Furthermore, there is a cap on the number of visas given each year and also each month. This contributes to inordinate delays in court.
For most of these juveniles the fear and anxiety of being deported as they await a final legal determination can be unbearable and impacts their ability to heal from the traumatic journey to the U.S.
Immigration laws do need to be enforced as open borders with endless flow of refugees is unsustainable.
The challenge is how to enforce the law, dial down the divisive and hateful rhetoric, demonstrate compassion and seek humane solutions for young migrants simply looking to live without fear. We’ve strayed from that ideal. I hope we can find our way back.
Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.