For Abused Undocumented Kids, a Legal Lifeline

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Aicha arrived in the U.S. in 2005 with a fake passport, a small bag containing all of her possessions and an enormous amount of teenage exhilaration. "I was so excited," the West African native recalls. "I could live with one of my biological parents."

A bright girl with sparkling dark brown eyes, Aicha was 15 when she boarded a plane to New York City to move in with her father, whom she barely knew, having spent just one week with him when she was 7. Her father, whose family had forbidden Aicha to have any contact with her mother since she was 3, had left her in the care of his cousin and his two wives, who would whip her, she says, if they thought she hadn't done enough housework. Aicha also says she was raped when she was 5 and then again at 13.

Aicha, who asked that her last name not be used because she is still seeking legal residency, thought that her father had saved her by bringing her to New York. But soon after her arrival, she says, he kissed her on the lips. The next day, when he tried to kiss her again, she rebuffed him. After that, things "got worse," she says, adding that he beat her and tried to sleep with her.

According to the most recent estimates from the Department of Homeland Security, there are some 2.7 million undocumented children and young adults living in the U.S. No one knows how many of them have come to the country to be reunited with a parent only to be abused by that parent. It's hard enough for kids to talk about being beaten or molested at home. But it's even harder when telling the authorities is coupled with the fear of detention or deportation, particularly if, as in Aicha's case, returning to your home country would be an even worse fate than living with an abusive parent in the U.S.

Some undocumented minors wind up in foster care because they seek help at runaway shelters or because hospitals and public schools are trained to look for signs of abuse at home. Some kids like Aicha find a trusted adult willing to apply for guardianship. And depending on the children's circumstances — and, often, on geography — social-services agencies can help them try to obtain legal permanent residency. Because without a green card, these kids not only run the risk of being kicked out of the country, but also, as they grow up, they will find themselves barred from most jobs and, in some states, unable to get financial aid for college.

To help undocumented minors who are abused, child-advocate groups are turning to a federal statute that created something called special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS). To qualify, applicants have to be under 21 and unmarried, and they have to prove not only that it is not in their best interest to return to their country of origin but that reunification with one or both parents is not possible due to abuse, abandonment or neglect. They also have to have been in foster care or declared dependent on the juvenile court, which typically occurs in the context of a legal-guardianship proceeding. In the 2010 fiscal year, 1,241 petitions were approved nationwide, up from 857 the previous year.

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