“Jon” grew up in Ecuador, where he spent his early years with his grandmother and “Aunt Maria” because his parents were unable to cope with his serious medical issues. His grandmother died when Jon was 12, and though his Aunt Maria was living in New Jersey by then, she remained a steady presence in his life through his teen years, sending money and calling Jon every morning and evening to check on him. Sustained by his aunt’s financial and emotional support, Jon managed on his own for many years until a local gang began pressuring him to sell drugs, threatening to kill him and his mother if he refused. After Jon rebuffed their demands twice, the gang followed through on their warnings, kidnapping and assaulting Jon and later murdering his mother in front of him. The local police did nothing to help, so Jon fled Ecuador, eventually crossing the border into Texas in June 2019. He spent months in multiple ICE detention centers until Mintz attorneys led a multistage effort to reunite him with his aunt and help him secure legal permission to remain in the United States.
After several weeks at an ICE facility in Texas, Jon was transferred to a Plymouth, Massachusetts detention center, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began deportation proceedings. PAIR, a nonprofit organization that assists impoverished asylum seekers and other detainees, stepped in and referred Jon to Mintz with the goal of getting him released to his aunt’s supervision while he applied for and awaited immigration benefits.
Despite such a compelling underlying story, Jon’s case for release proved to be an uphill battle. At the first of two hearings in October 2019, the judge insisted that Jon needed to present identification papers even though his ID card had been taken from him by immigration authorities in Texas and could not be located by ICE. Learning that Jon had previously texted an image of his ID card to his Aunt Maria, attorney Len Weiser-Varon convinced the court to accept the texted image of the card as adequate proof of identity. Former Mintz attorney Aditya Perakath helped Len build Jon’s case, interviewing the client, drafting affidavits, and preparing pleadings for the bond hearing. Former Mintz project analyst Eduardo Gonzalez and former Mintz paralegal Svetlana Santos assisted throughout by serving as translators.
Despite a ruling secured by Mintz and the ACLU in the 2019 Brito class action requiring the Boston Immigration Court to evaluate alternatives to detention and consider a detainee’s ability to pay when setting bond, the judge set a steep bond amount of $12,000. Although Mintz had obtained the judge’s release order, it was without effect unless the $12,000 could be raised. Mintz assisted Jon in cobbling together money from his aunt, two nonprofit organizations, and an individual donor, enabling Jon to post bail and move into his aunt’s New Jersey home in December 2019. The PAIR representation was complete, but Jon’s heartrending circumstances prompted the firm to continue representing him in his quest towards citizenship.
“Helping somebody on something as basic as ‘can you become a citizen of the United States or will you be returned to a place where your life is in jeopardy and you no longer really have any family,’ and achieving a positive outcome on that is about as satisfying as it gets in legal work,” Len said.
Because of the Trump administration policy limiting asylum for migrants fleeing gang violence, the Mintz team decided the best course would be to obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for Jon prior to his 21st birthday. This would enable him to remain in the country in the custody of his aunt. To meet the deadline — just over two months away — they needed direction from an organization with SIJS experience to serve as a subject matter expert and provide guidance on obtaining the necessary findings from a state court in New Jersey. Attorney Narges Kakalia, now the firm’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, connected with the Child Advocacy Clinic at Rutgers Law School, one of the few organizations with expertise in dealing with SIJS applicants over the age of 18, and they graciously agreed to help serve as mentors.
After quickly drafting and filing papers petitioning the court to award custody of Jon to his Aunt Maria and make findings that would support his I-360 petition to USCIS for SIJS status, the team began preparing Jon and Maria for the hearing in late January. Encouraging Jon and Maria to share enough details about their experiences while remaining sensitive to the trauma Jon had suffered was challenging, said attorney Lexie Gallo-Cook, who argued at the hearings. After the judge unexpectedly asked for more evidence regarding Maria’s potential custody, the team assembled additional evidence and prepared for more testimony.
“It was definitely a fine line between getting the court the information they needed but being sensitive to our client, everything he’d been through, and just how horrific the whole ordeal was,” Lexie said.
Throughout the New Jersey court case, Narges provided guidance, while attorney Jason P.W. Halperin supervised and helped other attorneys with hearing prep. Former Mintz attorneys David Drew and Nathalie Gorman contributed to the brief, and Nathalie also communicated with the clients in Spanish and assisted with the hearings and preparing the clients to testify. Attorney Todd Rosenbaum advised the team on the hearings and the general strategy for the SIJS case. Behind the scenes, Eduardo and another former Mintz project analyst, Soraya Morales Nuñez, also conveyed information to the clients in Spanish and translated numerous documents for the case. In addition, several assistants provided support, including Jennifer Sackman, Maureen Sullivan, and Tanya Johnson, along with Sylvia Belardo, who served as a translator.
“I was incredibly proud of the Mintz team of attorneys and staff who really moved very, very quickly and did what they needed to do for Jon under intense circumstances,” Jason said. “It was truly a life or death matter for the client.”
While the family court case progressed in New Jersey, attorney Ellen Shapiro oversaw the process of compiling and filing the I-360 petition for lawful permanent residence.
“Being able to do humanitarian work through my profession is very meaningful to me,” Ellen said. “I feel really grateful that Mintz is so dedicated to pro bono and allows its associates to take on these opportunities.”
The day before Jon’s 21st birthday (and the day the 1-360 petition was due at USCIS), the state court issued an oral order granting the SIJS findings, specifically that Jon was a minor and custody should be granted to his aunt. Because the petition requires a written order, the lawyers delicately entreated the judge for one, then raced to get the papers shipped to a USCIS office in Chicago by 5:00 pm the following day amid a snowstorm.
“It was not lost on us at all while we were working on this just what a monumental task this was in terms of the stakes and how much Jon really stood to lose,” Lexie said.
Since Jon was still in removal proceedings stemming from his detention, Mintz filed the SIJS findings with the federal immigration court in New Jersey. As a backup plan, Mintz attorneys also helped Jon apply for asylum, obtaining physical signatures on documents and presenting them in court despite extensive COVID-19-related restrictions and shutdowns in the tri-state area.
USCIS granted Jon’s petition for SIJS status in June 2020, and later that summer, the Mintz team made a filing to terminate his removal and asylum proceedings. Also with Mintz’s help, Jon filed for an adjustment of his immigration status and work authorization that fall. He continues to live with his aunt, and has since become a permanent resident and received authorization to work in the United States. Attorney Meena Seralathan is currently assisting Jon with issues related to his case.
“Just the idea of a young person having gone through the kind of trauma that he had and being able to help him recover from that in some small measure was really a great feeling,” Narges said. “Seeing how much his relationship with his aunt meant to him and knowing that we were able to get him to stay with her permanently was really gratifying.”