Orphans of the State

For countless undocumented immigrant kids, America is not the land of puppies and Disney trips, but the land of neglect

If fate had been kinder, or if people in state agencies had done their jobs, perhaps nineteen-year-old Kyle would not have done time in a state correctional facility. Nor would he now be stuck in Krome detention center. When social workers from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Broward County closed his case and plucked the undocumented youth from foster care without obtaining for him a Special Immigrant Juvenile visa, as the law dictates, they secured for him an uncertain future at best. At worst, deportation to a Caribbean land in which he's never lived.

On a March morning in 1999, the assistant director of the shelter Kyle had resided in for four years ordered him to pack his belongings. He was on his way to class. Instead of going to school, he says he got $50 for bus fare to Fort Lauderdale. There was no graduating into the independent-living program that DCF makes available to foster youths. No aid for college tuition. No acceptance into Job Corps.

Kyle is not alone. According to his mother, his younger brothers, both of whom spent time in foster care as well, also have not received special immigrant visas.

When Bernard Perlmutter files a J-visa petition, it's usually because DCF did not
When Bernard Perlmutter files a J-visa petition, it's usually because DCF did not

Had the DCF in Miami-Dade County placed seventeen-year-old Omar into foster care, he would have qualified almost immediately for a visa. Although DCF is obligated by law to do so, it didn't.

Manuela finally was put into a foster home, but that didn't solve her immigration problem. As a result the young mother, who has a life-threatening disease, didn't qualify for badly needed Medicaid during all of her childhood years.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990 makes it possible for undocumented minors such as Omar, Kyle, and Manuela (not their real names) to receive Special Immigrant Juvenile visas, also called "J-visas," once they become wards of the state. It's up to DCF to apply the law. Since the agency cannot deny children care on the basis of their legal status, it's in the state's best interest to acquire J-visas for undocumented children, because without the junior green card, DCF cannot receive federal backing for such kids. Without J-visas alien children in foster care can't benefit from federal aid, such as Medicaid or college grants. They can't enter DCF's independent-living program (an option for kids in foster care when they turn eighteen years old). Leaving the system without a legal status is akin to stepping off a boat full of immigrants who have just reached U.S. shores. Except they haven't; many have been here most of their lives.

These children are part of a lost generation of young immigrants who flee their war-torn or poverty-stricken homelands only to arrive in a nation where violence against children is less obvious. Some arrive with relatives who then abandon them, others with smugglers who drop them off in unfamiliar places for a price. Some children are sold as indentured servants, others live out of backpacks and drift from couch to couch. Many end up on the streets. They grow up undocumented and rely on third-world survival skills to subsist in a bleak immigrant netherworld. Abuse, neglect, and abandonment often are rites of passage these children must endure. In some instances even the undocumented minors who cling to the social structure and pass through the child-welfare system still slip through the cracks.

Miami-Dade County's DCF, which at one time maintained a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding undocumented kids in foster care, has not stepped up efforts to identify children who are in need of J-visas, despite a contract with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center to do just that. Broward DCF lags way behind in its efforts. Critics argue that both districts should be leading the nation with cutting-edge J-visa programs, given the steady stream of new arrivals to South Florida. Federal law already protects alien children against discrimination in obtaining state benefits and guarantees them a visa. A state rule also sets specific responsibilities when investigating the abuse and abandonment of undocumented children.

But in the decade since the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, and four years after the law was bolstered by the state's Alien Children Rule, Miami-Dade and Broward DCFs have failed to apply the laws consistently, if at all. "I'm concerned if DCF caseworkers are even aware they have undocumented kids," says Bernard Perlmutter, director of the University of Miami's Children and Youth Law Clinic. "Many of the caseworkers aren't aware there are means of assisting these children. They don't even know that such laws exist."

These, after all, are children who easily are placed out of sight. Unlike Elian Gonzalez, who commands the attention of an often myopic media, most undocumented children lack the star appeal or political clout, even collectively, that one six-year-old boy has been able to garner in two nations.

The relatives with whom Omar lived after stepping out of a plane from Jamaica at age two never took him to Disney World. Their idea of a fantastic ride was locking him in a parked car for hours with the windows rolled up whenever he misbehaved, the boy claims. "It would get so hot I couldn't breathe," Omar stated during a University of Miami School of Medicine psychological assessment. According to Omar his stepgrandmother would also beat him with an extension cord. One time she knocked him unconscious.

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