Orphans of the State

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

Omar's mother gave him up in Jamaica when he was a toddler. "She had too many kids and couldn't afford to keep me," he explains while waiting for the bailiff to call his name in Miami's Juvenile Justice Center on NW 27th Avenue. On this early February morning, a juvenile-delinquency judge will decide if Omar can apply for a J-visa. His caseworker is sitting next to him, his pro bono attorney directly behind him.

The maternal grandfather who brought the boy to the United States abandoned him and went back to the island when Omar was thirteen years old. Shortly thereafter the teenager turned up in juvenile court on shoplifting charges, in March 1996. On April 15, 1998, police arrested the youth, who was then homeless, for attempting to steal a car parked outside of a Winn-Dixie supermarket in Hialeah. Judge Lester Langer referred him to a homeless shelter. But nine days later, Omar was back on the streets stealing cars. Police arrested him again on April 24 and Judge Langer placed him in secure detention. The Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) released him to his stepgrandmother, but soon Omar was homeless again.

Bernard Perlmutter, who represented Omar for the J-visa petition, argues that once it was revealed in court that the boy was homeless, Miami-Dade's Department of Children and Families should have put him into foster care. Perlmutter believes Omar met the criteria: His family abandoned him twice, he allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of relatives, and he had been homeless for two years. "In this case DCF, which has the primary responsibility to conduct a thorough investigation of allegations of abandonment and abuse, shirked its responsibility," Perlmutter says. "They're swamped with work; a case like Omar's is of little priority to them."

"I don't know how long I'm gonna be here," Kyle says while sitting just a few feet away from Krome's exit gate
"I don't know how long I'm gonna be here," Kyle says while sitting just a few feet away from Krome's exit gate
Guardian ad litem Irving Reisfeld says DCF hit a low level in its mismanagement of Kyle's case
Guardian ad litem Irving Reisfeld says DCF hit a low level in its mismanagement of Kyle's case

Furthermore, Omar was undocumented. Yet despite the bleak circumstances surrounding his case, DCF had never initiated juvenile-dependency proceedings on his behalf. Because DCF had not assumed custody of Omar, the state welfare agency could not petition a J-visa for him. The boy had to commit a few crimes while he was homeless in order to become a ward, a dependent in the juvenile system. That's when Perlmutter stepped in. The pro bono attorney wrangled with state prosecutors and tried to convince a judge to assume jurisdiction over the Jamaican boy's immigration quagmire.

To avoid taking Omar's case, Miami-Dade DCF struck a deal with Omar's stepgrandmother on July 30, 1998: DCF would provide her with housing assistance if she would care for the boy. Caseworkers, Omar's DJJ probation officer Herman Perry, and the boy's stepgrandmother came together to discuss his fate. Omar's stepgrandmother, who had been living with friends because she couldn't afford to pay rent, told DCF caseworkers she was unable to care for Omar, according to Perry. DCF offered to provide her with assistance for housing if she agreed to take him in.

Perry says that during the meeting, Omar's stepgrandmother also hinted the boy did not have legal status. The meeting concluded with Omar's stepgrandmother agreeing to care for the child in return for assistance.

About a month after the roundtable had taken place, Omar reported that his stepgrandmother abused him. On September 17 DJJ disclosed the allegations to juvenile court. DCF investigated, concluding that Omar's claims could not be substantiated. That same day Perry contacted Perlmutter to help Omar obtain a J-visa. Sensing a long court battle over who should take Omar's case, Perlmutter decided there was no time to pull DCF back into the matter. By March 1999 Omar had run away again. DJJ issued a pick-up order for him, and when he was located they placed him in an independent-living program at Miami's River of Life in Homestead.

This past February Bernard Perlmutter was able to persuade a judge to declare Omar eligible for a J-visa. State prosecutors were opposed to the idea. They argued Omar was not a dependent of the state and that a criminal judge lacked jurisdiction over an immigration matter. In court Perlmutter begged to differ. "The arguments of the state are very misleading," Perlmutter said. "He is for all intents and purposes a dependent. He is in the custody of the state, in a program under the auspices of DJJ. He has no family." Judge Lester Langer ruled in Omar's favor.

"I'm somewhat familiar with [Omar's] situation," the judge stated. "Without getting into an argument of form over substance, he qualifies for long-term foster care. He has no parents in the U.S. The child is dependent on the juvenile court even though he hasn't been declared dependent by a juvenile court.... I will issue an order that will allow him to enter an application with INS."

With that pronouncement Omar was free to apply for a green card, with which he could apply for a scholarship at Johnson & Wales University. He wants to be a chef. As he left the courthouse, he felt it was as if a weight had been lifted. "I feel better," Omar commented.

There was no outpouring, no warm welcome, when nine-year-old Kyle and his family arrived in the United States from Haiti. During much of their childhood in Fort Lauderdale, Kyle and his two brothers fended for themselves. Their mother worked long hours in low-paying jobs and supplemented the family's income by taking monthlong trips to the Caribbean to sell merchandise bought cheap in the States. During her long absences, the family collapsed.

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