A 4-year-old girl at the heart of a custody battle between her undocumented immigrant mother and legal-resident grandparents is best suited to live with her mother, whose residential status does not affect her fitness as a parent, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

The 3-0 order reverses a Renville County district judge's decision and is considered a victory for both the child's mother, 20-year-old Jessica Luna, and immigration rights advocates.

"It's a great development in the law in that just because you're undocumented doesn't mean you therefore lose your kids," said Cynthia Moyer, an attorney who co-authored a brief on behalf of the Advocates for Human Rights, one of two in support of Luna.

For the girl's mother, the reaction was more visceral.

"I don't think that any mother should have their child taken away under such circumstances," Jessica Luna said in a statement.

April Ramirez was born in April 2009 to Luna, who was 17 at the time, and Jose Ramirez Jr., who was 15. The teens never married, but lived together in Renville with his parents, Jose Ramirez Sr. and Maria DeJesus Ramirez. While Luna is not a legal resident, Ramirez Jr. and his mother are U.S. citizens. Ramirez Sr. is a legal resident.

In September 2011 Luna moved out following a fight with Maria Ramirez, and the grandparents filed for emergency sole legal custody of the girl. After a trial, Renville County District Judge Randall Slieter granted the grandparents sole physical and legal custody, saying they were best suited to care for her, in part because Luna "is not legally in the U.S. and her mother lives out of state." Luna appealed.

'A fair shake'

Her case drew the attention of attorneys from Minneapolis-based Leonard, Street and Deinard, which took on the case at no cost to Luna.

"We thought it was important that regardless of your age, status or means you should get a fair shake when it comes to the custody of your natural children, and that's what Jessica was seeking," said attorney Kevin Conneely, who co-represented Luna.

Custody fights are often so fact-specific, Conneely said, that it's hard to say so far how much impact the ruling will have on future cases. However, he added, "I'd like to think that it will be a decision the courts will have to look at if they want to take into account immigration status in the future."

The Ramirez family's attorney, Amy Isenor of Willmar, declined to comment on the request of Maria Ramirez. She said she will meet with the grandparents Tuesday to determine whether they will ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to hear the case.

Conneely said the fact that the child's father, Jose Ramirez Jr., did not petition for custody made the case unique. He would not speculate what difference it could make in the case.

Minnesota courts have generally favored biological parents in custody disputes involving non-parents, unless there are "grave and weighty" reasons. Among them are three factors: if the parent was unfit or abandoned the child; if the child was in emotional or physical danger, or "other extraordinary circumstances."

The appeals court found the first two factors did not apply, and that Luna's undocumented status did not meet the criteria for "extraordinary."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921