NE JFON's newest clinics reach out to youth on their own
May 06, 2019
Imagine being on your own as a teenager. Think about having to support yourself while trying to go to school. Then picture yourself doing that in a language you don’t speak well if at all. Now you’re going to try to apply for legal status – managing all the documents, court appearances, and other requirements without transportation much less legal assistance.
It is, says Camila Ransom Valenzuela, an immigration attorney with the Northeast Justice Center.
“Immigration court proceedings [take] at least three years – there are docket delays; hearings get rescheduled all the time,” Valenzuela said. “A lot of the clients we’re seeing are from Central America: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador. Because there’s been such a huge number of kids from Central America, there’s visa backlog for kids from those countries.”
That means a long wait before you’re able to apply for “lawful permanent resident status” or your green card.
“I think right now they’re looking at cases from 2016,” Valenzuela said.
But unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. now have some extra assistance through the New England Justice for Our Neighbors’ (NE JFON) newest legal clinics in Lowell and Lawrence, MA. The clinics provide free legal services to low-income immigrants.
Valenzuela works with NE JFON staffing three monthly clinics; Lowell and Lawrence, which focus on unaccompanied youth, and Woburn.
About half the clients she sees through JFON don’t have any contacts in the U.S.; others may live with a relative or family friend. Most are between the ages of 12 and 18.
While in many ways the path to legal status is “more linear” for applicants under 21, Valenzuela said, these young people face a number of obstacles not encountered by adults. But being designated an Unaccompanied Alien Child does have some advantages, she said.
“First of all, they have a chance to see a judge – which you might not [as an adult] depending on how you’re processed at the border,” she said. “Also they get placed at a youth facility or shelter; it’s not detention; it’s not a jail. They can go to school, get medical treatment – a lot of kids don’t have vaccines – while the program tries to find a sponsor, someone who’s going to take care of them in the U.S.”
That said, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) seems less welcoming these days, Valenzuela said.
“The SIJ [Special Immigrant Juvenile Status] process was fairly simple: You may have to wait, but it’s pretty linear,” Valenzuela said. “Now you’re seeing more hurdles in the adjudication of that process. USCIS, which gets the applications, may agree the applicant qualifies, but still not give consent for some obscure reason. In my opinion, it’s just this policy that USCIS has right now to be more restrictive.”
Valenzuela, who was born in Chile, said despite the challenges, she remains committed to helping new immigrants come to the U.S. Her grandfather came to the U.S. in the 1970s, then petitioned for his children, including her father, to join him here. Her father then brought Valenzuela and her mother to the U.S. when Valenzuela was 4 years old.
“I realized that even though right now things are really difficult, what motivates me are the clients – seeing someone, a kid 16-years-old,
Fleeing gang violence
Many of the teenagers who come to the U.S. alone from Central America are fleeing not just rampant poverty, but gang violence. Teens are aggressively recruited by gangs, and those who don’t join become victims of the gangs’ violence. Rev. Gabriela Garcia, pastor at Christ UMC in Lawrence, MA, has worked with immigrant youth for some 20 years. Take a listen
who’s going to school by themselves, lives by themselves, working some odd jobs here and there – that’s motivating,” Valenzuela said. “If they can overcome all these obstacles they’ve overcome coming to the U.S., then we can overcome whatever obstacles we get from USCIS or immigration court.”
Valenzuela said the anti-immigrant climate in the country has spurred a lot of misconceptions about those who are seeking legal status in the U.S. She responded to some of the questions and comments she hears:
Why don’t immigrants just apply for a visa?
“I meet with a lot of clients who live in very rural areas – there’s no access to water – no mail system, no numbered streets – some of my clients might just have a second-grade education,” Valenzuela said. “So to expect someone from a very difficult situation to just apply for a visa is not realistic.”
Why don’t they just pay the fees and get their legal status?
“That’s just completely disconnected from the reality. Yes, Immigration has a lot of fees, but it’s not like you just have to pay money,” she said. “If it was just money, clients would just pay for it. But there’s all these hurdles and barriers in the Immigration system that they can’t just do that.”
“The other thing that people always throw around is ‘They don’t even pay taxes. They’re just here freeloading,’” Valenzuela said.
“That’s completely untrue,” she said. “A lot of clients that have been here for years are paying taxes. You can pay taxes without a Social Security number.”
Saying that they are burdening the social services system is equally untrue, Valenzuela said.
“Most of the time, if you’re undocumented, you’re not eligible for those programs,” she said. “They might get [services] for their U.S. citizen children, which is perfectly fair and legal.”
But even in those cases, many immigrants don’t want to use public services, Valenzuela said.
“[They say] ‘I want to work hard and do it that way,’” Valenzuela said. “All of my clients – they have just one purpose in coming to the U.S.: To work honorably, to provide for their families; to have a better opportunity for themselves and for their families.”
Other than Valenzuela, who is paid, the JFON clinics are staffed by volunteers. They handle appointments, do intake interviews with clients, and provide hospitality – including a hot meal.
The Lawrence clinic is open from 5-8 p.m. on the fourth Monday of each month at Christ UMC. The clinic sees anywhere from two to six clients in an evening, according to Pam Brewster, who coordinates the volunteers. The first step is to call or email to make an appointment. Contact info is on the NE JFON website.
Rev. Sharon Jones, retired, is the NE JFON treasurer and a volunteer at the Lawrence clinic.
“I believe in a God of love, and I think that love doesn’t really have an boundaries,” Rev. Jones said when asked why she volunteers. “I hear stories about the way immigrants are being treated, and so I wanted to reach out and make a more hospitable welcome and provide legal services for them to help with the very complicated legal work of immigration in this country.”
Brewster said she likes “meeting directly with people who are impacted.”
“It’s not the same as watching something on the television or the news – it really helps you understand the
whole immigration issue a lot better,” she said.
Rev. Gabriela Garcia is pastor at Christ UMC. She said working with these youth goes beyond providing legal services.
“We provide many things – we help them enroll in school, get health insurance, take them to clinics, get clothes,” Rev. Garcia said.
But the legal services are critical. Many times, these kids are not going to school because they have to work to try to pay for a lawyer.
“This opportunity to have lawyers that they don’t have to worry about paying for, it really releases them from a great pain inside,” Rev. Garcia said. “These kids are desperate to have a lawyer.”
“Having this clinic here, we’re saying ‘hey, listen, we’re not just going to help you with clothes, we’re not just going to help you with enrolling in school, we’re going to make sure you also legalize yourself while you have a chance,” Rev. Garcia said.
The Lawrence clinic opened in November with volunteer attorneys. Valenzuela was hired in February. The clinic has been reaching out to and working with youth that they already know about. The next step, Rev. Garcia says, is to reach out beyond their immediate neighborhood and find other youth who need help.
Rev. Garcia said she would also like to reach out to volunteers who may be willing to provide some assistance beyond staffing the clinics. For example, the youth often struggle with finding transportation to court appearances and other appointments – some of which are in Worcester or Boston – so volunteer drivers are needed as well.
And it’s not all work: “Some of these kids have never been in Boston,” Rev. Garcia said. “[A volunteer might] take a couple of kids to Boston or for a walk on the beach.”
Rev. Garcia herself recently took some young people on their very first trip to the beach.
“And sometimes it’s just to have someone to speak with,” Rev. Garcia said. “Beyond JFON we can create a pool of volunteers to provide a support network to cover the needs of these young people.”