In Defense of Childhood: A Call to Action to Defend Immigrants Who Aren’t Citizens Yet, Especially Children
In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Campaign for Youth Justice is supporting a series on the impact of federal and state youth justice policies and practices and their disparate impact on Latinx families. This is the third blog in our series.
By Kent Mendoza, Policy Coordinator for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition & CFYJ Spokesperson
I was brought to this country at age six. I still remember the hardships my mom had to endure, coming to this country by herself, while living in Los Angeles searching a job that could support my siblings and I. It was very hard for her to raise me by herself while still trying to settle down in a foreign place. Her below living wage income meant that from the day I began my journey in this country, I was exposed to the harsh realities of living in a community where drugs, gangs, and violence were rampant. This environment, which was a mixture of hard working families and disinvestment in community supports for young people, became my “normal.”
I was first incarcerated at the age of 15 and was sentenced to a probation camp where I served a sentence of 18 months. When I was released at the age of 17, I was unprepared for a successful transition back to my community and lasted no more than a month until I was back in handcuffs. I was again put in jail, but this time, I was tried as an adult.
I was facing 25 years-to-life prison in the adult prison system. I was extremely fortunate that my case remained in juvenile court. Ultimately, I was sentenced to serve a “juvenile life” sentence in the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). I was given the opportunity to stay in the juvenile justice system to take advantage of all the evidence-based programs and services they had to offer. I was given the opportunity to rehabilitate myself so that this time I could actually have a successful transition back into my community.
However, the truth was that even as I took advantage of all these programs in DJJ, read every single book that mentors mailed to me and educated myself, the prospect of deportation constantly pressed into my chest, making it difficult for me to breathe and have some sense of hope for my future.
It was very discouraging knowing that even if I put all my effort in changing, it wasn’t going to matter because I was not a citizen of this country, and I had a criminal record. It’s paralyzing to have no voice in one system, especially when you are an immigrant and have no real legal representation. I was 17 and screaming out into a void of adults who chose to remain deaf to my humanity, across two oppressive systems. It was a lot for a 17 year old kid who was still trying to discover his own purpose but yet, his fate was going to be determined by an unjust system.
When I was younger, I thought that my public defenders could have done more, but they were only trained in juvenile justice, not in immigration law. It was not just about getting me a good deal on my criminal case; it was also about ensuring that all my rights as a juvenile were fully exercised. My public defender should have known that I qualified for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), which is an immigration protection for juveniles who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent. SIJS is a legal pathway for youth without status and who are living in difficult situations to obtain green cards and gain citizenship. I was definitely eligible because I was abandoned by my father when I was just under 6 years old. It was a trauma that had a huge impact on me because it was one of the factors the led me to make bad choices as a youth. I had no guidance and my mom couldn’t do everything all by herself. The only reason I even found out that I qualified for SIJS was because I was moved from one facitliy to another, and another kid there told me about it (and I later got help with my application from a local nonprofit). This is not how I should have found about about this path for me to adjust my status.
After I completed my DJJ sentence, I was immediately put on ICE hold. I spent the next 48 hours of my life in immigration custody. I was 20 years-old and placed in a cage with 30 older guys that seem desperate, lonely, and angry for what was about ot happened to them, which they didn’t know. Some of them where crying, others kept trying to call their loved ones but their sad faces made me realized exactly how alone we all where.
I was fortunate, however. As I was shipped from one facility to another, my SIJS eligibility was flagged. This is not how I should have found about about this, as my public defender should have been aware of this from my very first involvement witht the juvenile justice system. Still, I was grateful. The vast majority of people in my position are not as lucky.
Public defenders—who represent some of the most vulnerable people, people who can’t afford a laywer when their life or liberty is at stake—are the first line of defense against the deportation machine. Criminal proceedings and even small misdemenors can have disastrous consequences for immigrants who are not citizens. These proceedings and convictions triggers deportations. Without familiarity and expert support with the incredibly complex immigrant laws, a public defender can inadvertently put a noncitizen client in danger of deportation. In this context, especially when the deportation dragnet has increasingly relied on local criminal justice systems that disproportionately target poor communities of color, quality public defense is vitally important.
Public defenders should be equipped to fully defend their noncitizen clients and prevent, where possible, avoidable criminal convictions that trigger deportation and other devastating immigration consequences. They should also provide more holistic representation and wrap-around services. At the very least, they should screen for relief from removal and refer clients to nonprofit providers if they can’t represent clients in-house. If adequately trained and supported, public defenders could proactively spot issues, like SIJS in my case, and either refer clients in-house or refer them to nonprofits. We know that having legal representation in immigration courts is the single most effective factor in winning a deportation case. And we can’t let chance dictate whether someone gets to stay.
Here in my home turf of Los Angeles County, we have the largest public defender office in the nation—the L.A. County Public Defender’s Office (LACPD). Yet, with only 2 immigration law expert attorneys to support more than 700 public defenders, LACPD has been woefully under-resourced to provide noncitizen clients with quality, legally-required representation. “Defend L.A.,” a report released in May by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, and a letter from more than 80 local community, faith, and labor organizations have recommended that the L.A. County Board of Supervisors dramatically expand LACPD’s Immigration Unit with at least 15 additional immigration experts. Just this week, based on our Defend L.A. campaign our coalition waged, we were able to expand LACPD’s Immigration Unit fivefold—from 2 to 10 immigration experts. We still have more work to do, but this is a strong step forward in ensuring that public defenders here in L.A. County are equipped to fully defend noncitizen clients—and don’t leave the fate of clients to chance, as it happened to me.
During October, for both Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM) and Hispanic Heritage Month, we must remember to protect youth and families in vulenarble transition periods who are often seeking refuge in this country. We must dedicate resources to providing public defender offices with more immigration experts, training, and resources, so that they can provide constitutionally-mandated, high-quality, holistic defense to all their noncitizen clients.