A 16-year-old Elder Leiva crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in late 2014, unsure of what awaited him beyond the Rio Grande. Even as he settled with an aunt in Minnesota and enrolled in high school, one all-important question lingered: Would he get to stay?
For many of the 1,000 Central American unaccompanied minors who’ve joined relatives in this state since 2014, the answer to that question has been yes. Some won asylum. Many more obtained legal status through a visa program for abused and abandoned children that involves appealing to local courts. A major increase in applications for that program has led to an unprecedented backlog.
“For children who were able to get an attorney, the outcomes have been very positive,” said Rebecca Scholtz, who until recently represented minors at the nonprofit Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.
Now, the Trump administration is weighing major changes: More minors could be subject to speedy deportation, and parents in the United States who pay smugglers to ferry their children north could face criminal charges. Already, fewer unaccompanied minors are arriving at the U.S. southern border — down from 7,350 in November to fewer than 2,000 in February.
Leiva, whom the Star Tribune profiled in 2015, came amid a dramatic surge of unaccompanied minors, propelled north by gang violence and poverty in Central America. He had left Honduras two years earlier, working along the way to save money for his passage.
An aunt in the Twin Cities agreed to host Leiva while he waited for an immigration court date, granted to minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada under a federal anti-trafficking law. He enrolled in Minneapolis’ Wellstone High School, which specializes in serving English learners. He met a Legal Aid attorney who took on his case.
“So many people have helped me since I got here,” Leiva said.
At first, the unaccompanied children’s prospects looked murky.
The Obama administration created an accelerated docket for Central American minors and families. Out of 815 cases involving minors that Bloomington Immigration Court completed since 2014, 170 were ordered deported, in most cases after they didn’t show up for their hearings. Most cases were temporarily closed so lawyers could pursue ways for the children to stay.
Some applied for asylum, historically a long shot for those arguing that they fled gang violence. The approval rate for unaccompanied minor applications has dipped to just more than 20 percent at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Chicago Asylum Office, which handles Minnesota applications.
Support in local courts
Attorneys say they have had more success with a program called Special Immigrant Juveniles Status (SIJS), in which they ask family or juvenile courts to rule that the minors were neglected, abused or abandoned by at least one parent. In Hennepin County and elsewhere, judges have proved sympathetic.
“These kids have been through a lot in their home countries,” said Kara Rieke of the Volunteer Lawyers Network, which handled about 80 such cases statewide since 2014, the majority in Hennepin County family court. Of the 49 that have reached resolution, 45 have been approved.
Final approval rests with USCIS, which in recent years has rejected only about 3 to 4 percent of SIJS applications. Nationally, the government received 19,475 such applications in 2016 — up from fewer than 3,000 five years ago.
That’s the route Leiva’s attorney, Laura Wilson, pursued as well. Leiva made appearances in immigration court, Hennepin County family court and at a USCIS interview. Final approval came in August.
He got a driver’s license and a work permit. He started a job working overnight shifts at a garment factory that marred his junior year grades but helped him send money to his mother in Honduras.
He also landed in a new backlog for Central Americans awaiting green cards through SIJS, extending the wait until he can go back and see his family for the first time in almost five years.
“My family is the most important thing to me,” he said.
Crackdown on smuggling
Meanwhile, the cases of unaccompanied minors have remained controversial.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a recent memo that 60 percent of 155,000 minors who have arrived in the past three years were placed with a parent living in the United States, often illegally. Under the law, he said, a child whose parents live here is not unaccompanied.
The memo directs immigration authorities to create policies to deal with those arrivals, raising the prospect of expedited deportations. Kelly also said the government will move to deport or prosecute parents who pay smugglers thousands of dollars to bring their children here, noting young people have been kidnapped and assaulted on the way.
At the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors restricting immigration, Ira Mehlman points to the recent dip in arrivals.
“Under the Obama administration, the signal we were sending was, ‘Get to the border, and it’ll be OK,’ ” he said. Now, “People believe we are going to enforce the law, and they act accordingly.”
Mehlman said anti-trafficking legislation that provides a court hearing shouldn’t apply to the minors who are smuggled, not trafficked.
In immigration court, unaccompanied minors are no longer a priority, a move to allow judges to focus on immigrants in detention.
The changes concern advocates such as Scholtz, now at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, who says children undertake risky journeys because gang violence and abuse back home pose steeper risks.
“If the government narrows who is considered an unaccompanied child, that would strip away protections from vulnerable children,” she said.
Meanwhile, Leiva is slowly finding his footing. Still learning English, he had a difficult transition from Wellstone to the larger South High School. He left the overnight gig for a job as a dishwasher at a west metro restaurant four evenings a week.
He worries he is not helping his mother enough and often thinks about dropping out to get a full-time job. But he is determined to graduate, he says: “I have so many privileges now that I didn’t have before.”