The training was filled with amazing speakers, panels, and conversations among a variety of organizations working with unaccompanied children in the United States. I was surrounded by advocates whose years of experience, passion, and commitment to their work shined in the panels they facilitated.
A highlight of the training was author, poet, and former unaccompanied child Javier Zamora sharing his story of coming to the United States when he was nine years old, also told in his memoir, Solito. During a conversation with KIND Senior Vice President for Legal Programs Maria Odom, Javier emphasized the importance of listening to children who made the harrowing journey to the United States, as he did. The children, as survivors of trauma, deserve the time, space, and respect to share their story, Javier explained.
This is why I was also impacted by a panel facilitated by youth who received protection through Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), for children who were abused, abandoned, neglected, and who are now grassroots leaders in the End SIJS Backlog Coalition. The youth, who are now lawful permanent residents, explained how they learned they were eligible for SIJS, how it has enabled them to live safely in the United States, and how they are dedicated to helping youth who are similarly eligible. Thousands of young people who are eligible for SIJS are unable to receive it because of an annual cap that has caused an enormous backlog resulting in young people waiting years to gain this protection. The panel also discussed the Coalition’s efforts to speak with members of Congress to enact legislation that would eliminate the cap on SIJS and enable them to adjust status sooner. This congressional action was the result of grassroots efforts to educate the public on the challenges facing SIJS youth created by the backlog.
Another panel I attended, “Successful Strategies Using State Authority to Protect Unaccompanied Children,” highlighted the various mechanisms state governments can use to defend the rights and dignity of unaccompanied children. One panelist outlined her role in a state government office whose goal is to meet children in the local Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter and to educate them about their rights during their stay in the shelter. Another panelist described the role that the state attorneys general play in engaging with county and local officials to remind them of the rights of immigrant children in ORR shelters and/or seeking relief in their immigration cases. The panel empowered me to deepen my understanding of the systems affecting unaccompanied children when they enter the United States, the ways that California can leverage its authority to protect children, and how I can relay that leverage in representing my clients and mentoring pro bono attorneys.
Overall, the greatest takeaway of the training was the importance of storytelling. Whether a child is in an ORR shelter, speaking with a congressperson on SIJS, or is a survivor of a traumatic experience in their home country or in the United States, an advocate must be prepared to tell the child’s story in a way that illustrates that they should be treated with dignity, that they may qualify for protection, and that they should have an opportunity to live safely in the United States.