Immigrant foster children

Making the undocumented in the US foster homes legal

Fekri Kram was born in Tunisia, North Africa in 1990. When he was five years his mother sold him off to a French woman because she was too poor to support the family. But life with his new guardian turned into a nightmare for Kram. She abused him physically and sexually until Kram escaped and ended up in a hospital. Because of the abuse Kram was immediately put into foster care.

He grew up in foster homes and now lives in Kaplan House in St Mark’s Place. When he was 16, Kram wanted to work but realized he was not legal in the United States because he did not have ‘green card’, a Permanent Resident Card. “I realized I had no security,” says Kram. “If I got into trouble with the law, I could be deported.”

A study by Columbia University Law School Child Advocacy and Immigration Clinic of the 15,000 children who enter foster care in New York every year, approximately 150 have no immigration status. If they are not provided means to be legal they end up living illegally like the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US or face the daily risk of deportation from the country.

Faced with a challenge, Kram decided to step up—he called the Tunisian Embassy in Washington DC and filed the paperwork for ‘green card’. After two years he was finally a permanent resident of the US.

According to immigration experts children who end up without legal documents are often fleeing their homes because of dangers ranging from rape, death, human rights violations (i.e. trafficking, child labor), and the upheavals of natural disasters, severe abuse, abandonment, or neglect by their family.

The US Office of Refugee Resettlement, a branch of US Administration for Children and Families investigates if the children have experienced abuse, abandonment or neglect. If going back to their country and reunification with the family are not reasonable options they can apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a federal law that assists undocumented children to remain in the US legally and apply for a permanent resident status or ‘green card’.

Karen Freedman, Director of Lawyers for Children, an organization of attorney and social workers that provide legal representation for children aging out of foster care agrees with Kram, “A ‘green card’ opens a lot of doors—immigrant young adults can live and work legally in the US, they are eligible to apply for financial aid, have access to public benefits such as Public Assistance, Medicaid and Food Stamps, as well as public housing.”

Since SIJS requires several steps the process may take up to two years before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services reaches a decision. Experts say that the biggest challenge right now is to identify children early so that they can start applying for SIJS.

“The application has to be submitted before the kid turns 21 years old which is why his/her case worker, ACS, foster family, have to be aware of the process,” says Myra Elgabry, Director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at Lawyers for Children.

Lawyers have often argued that although kids in the city’s child welfare system have been identified as potentially eligible for SIJS, many are still overlooked. Earlier this year New York’s City Council considered some ways to amend the administrative code of New York City in relation to requiring Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to create a plan of action to protect children who qualify for SIJS. Advocates have asked the Council to make the bill more stringent, requiring ACS to hold mandatory training on immigration issues for case workers.

Immigration lawyer Ragini Shah, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at Suffolk Univeristy Law School says identifying undocumented children does not mean complicated procedures. “It is as simple as including ‘place of birth’ in initial ACS forms that have to be filled when children go into foster care—this makes it easier for them to be tracked down,” says Shah.

Advocates say that there are many kids who are not in foster care that also need to be identified. “There are many children in guardianship—those who are living with their family members—who need to be identified because SIJS should extend to them too,” says Elgabry.

Eventually to have a larger impact, however, lawyers say that more work needs to be done towards passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (The Dream Act), introduced first in 2001. It was reintroduced again this week and was passed by House of Representatives passed the Act. US Senate has moved to postpone voting on the Act. The bill grants approximately one million undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children a chance to gain legal status.

“The hope is to finally pass the DREAM Act, however, the environment is not so friendly towards immigrants,” says Freedman, “Lobbyists need to keep pushing so that the Act does not fall out of priority with the lawmakers.”