Miguel*, a student at Wellstone International High School, had been a Legal Aid client for two years when he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). His recent approval for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) triggered the detention. Legal Aid’s Immigration unit worked quickly, filing a motion to re-open an in absentia order that was the basis for his arrest.

“That detention was odd and horrible,” says Staff Attorney Lisl Zamora. “Miguel was barely an adult and still in high school. Even when the order was rescinded and the reason for picking him up no longer existed, they didn’t release him.”

A Victim of Human Trafficking

Zamora filed papers to allow a bond, helping secure Miguel’s release after a few months. SIJS is a designation for juveniles who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent. When Miguel traveled alone from Guatemala to Texas at the age of 15, his uncle put him to work 60 hours per week in heavy construction. An order to appear in court was mailed to his uncle’s address, but Miguel never saw it. He moved to Minnesota to live with his cousin.

Once Miguel was informed of the order, he cooperated with law enforcement to investigate the human trafficking in Texas. Zamora filed a T-Visa for him in June of 2019, which, if approved, would give him permission to remain in the United States legally.

“I am scared about being sent back to Guatemala,” Miguel said in his affidavit. “I have nothing and no one there. Here in Minnesota, I have more support. I have learned a lot of English since I arrived, and I want to continue school and learning and make a better life for myself.”

Harsh Environment for Immigrants

Miguel is one of Legal Aid’s many clients who were adversely affected by the harsh environment for immigrants, particularly communities of color, over the past four years. Travel bans, new public charge rules, increased filing fees, threats to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), as well as office closings had an immediate effect upon individuals and their families.

When the United States Citizenship and Immigration (USCIS) office closed in the spring, immigration courts remained open and ICE continued to arrest and detain immigrants like Miguel. When facilities stopped allowing visitors due to the pandemic, Legal Aid struggled to maintain contact and clear communication with their detained clients.

“We found it increasingly difficult to handle the rapid changes and mixed messages from USCIS,” Supervising Attorney Alison Olson Cox explains. “A disturbing statement on the USCIS website stated they wouldn’t honor the court’s decision regarding DACA because they didn’t want to help ‘criminals.’ Over the past four years, we’ve seen more indications of USCIS blatantly refusing to comply with court orders.”

New Fees to Seek Asylum

In August of 2020, USCIS released news of a change to fees — including increases of 200% and more — which would have an enormous impact on Legal Aid’s clients. The United States became one of only three countries in the world to charge people to apply for asylum. Many of Legal Aid’s clients had cases in progress, and the entire organization made a coordinated effort to process over 100 applications before the fees were scheduled to jump. That fee raise, like many other immigration changes, began to work its way through the courts.

“Immigrants are being pummeled, and disparate treatment toward communities of color is the norm,” Olson Cox says. “We bring statistics and studies documenting that disparate treatment into the public conversation and into the courtroom. The immigrants we represent have a right to have their experiences heard, and a right to use the law the way it’s meant to be used.”

Favorable Outcome for Miguel

As lawsuits are filed, injunctions issued, and cases make their way through the courts, Legal Aid attorneys continue the daily work of defending clients and protecting their rights. In October, Zamora helped Miguel file for his green card and work authorization. His T-visa was approved in January of 2021. Now 21 years old and protected from removal, Miguel continues his studies and hopes to become a U.S. citizen.

“Miguel is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, so polite and accepting of how long things take,” Zamora says. “To finally have something work out for him makes me really happy.”

*Name changed to protect client identity

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