Esty Lobovits, an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in Boston, played a pivotal role in changing the life of a teenage girl from Guatemala. The girl, Eliza*, was neglected and abandoned by her father when she was only four years old. She was eventually taken in by her elderly grandparents, but after Eliza became pregnant by an older man at age 16, her family became very angry and upset with her. Eliza was worried that she would have to drop out of school to support herself. After she received a threat against her personal safety, she had no choice but to flee to the U.S. with the hope of finding a safe place for herself and her baby. With Esty’s help, Eliza recently was granted permanent residency and is excited that she will have the ability to start taking college courses to become a nursing assistant.
Laurie Carafone, KIND’s Supervising Attorney in Boston, stated, “Esty has been a superstar from the start. Esty rolled with the punches — she is a true professional and just ‘got it’; she faced everything head-on as a dogged advocate for her child client. She always saw the issues that needed to be dealt with and crafted smart, creative solutions. One thing that struck me was how Esty also took a step back to see the larger meaning of her work and the case: She expressed a sincere admiration for her client and how much she grew during the process. I think both women had a mutual respect for one another. It was a great outcome.”
KIND is honored to work with attorneys like Esty who are dedicated and compassionate and work to change the lives of the most vulnerable children.
1. Describe your role on the issue and your relationship with KIND. How did you get involved in this kind of pro bono work?
My role in this case was to provide legal representation to an unaccompanied, juvenile immigrant in obtaining her legal permanent residency status (green card) in the United States utilizing the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The process involved obtaining a special findings order from the state family and probate court that the juvenile was the victim of abuse, neglect and/or abandonment by one or both of her parents, followed by filings and interviews with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and, ultimately, an individual hearing before the federal immigration court, which took place last week.
Skadden encourages pro bono work, and KIND is one of the local nonprofit organizations with which we work for case referrals. Additionally, I was interested in this case because I previously had represented immigrant victims of domestic violence in obtaining green cards, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to continue that type of work with children who are facing very challenging circumstances in their home countries and who are trying to come to the United States to build a better future.
2. What aspects of the issue resonate most with you (e.g. belief in due process, passion for child and human rights) and with the legal community?
The United States has established a special legal process to allow juveniles who come to this country to remain here and obtain legal status if they meet certain requirements — namely, being the victim of abuse, neglect and/or abandonment. An SIJS case presents a great opportunity to help a young person who has suffered in their home country, hopefully giving him or her the chance to succeed, to pursue an education and to accomplish goals. I believe that every child should be given those opportunities, and it is wonderful as an attorney to be able to help facilitate that process.
The U.S. immigration system is highly complicated and challenging to navigate without an attorney, especially as a young person who does not speak English. I think the legal community generally has an important role to play in ensuring these children have adequate legal representation.
3. Can you share Eliza’s story with us briefly; why she fled to the U.S., what it was like meeting her for the first time, and the immigration court process she had to go through?
Eliza was born in a rural, poor area of Guatemala and at a young age was neglected and abandoned by her father. When her mother left for the U.S., Eliza went to live with her elderly grandparents who were in ill health and could not take care of her properly. Eliza was only 16 when she became pregnant by an older man. Her grandparents were very angry and upset with Eliza, who felt she could no longer live in the same house with them. Eliza knew that once her child was born, she would be forced to drop out of school and would have to work to support herself and her child. She also received a threat against her personal safety and, at that point, she saw no other choice but to leave for the United States.
When I first met Eliza, she did not speak any English, and she was adjusting to her new life in the U.S., which included taking classes at a high school for non-English-speaking students. Her son had been born after she arrived in the U.S., and she was figuring out how to balance taking care of him and pursuing her education. It was not easy for her, but I could tell she was excited to stay in the U.S. if possible; that she was happy to be living with her mother; and that she was working hard at school.
The immigration process, which took more than two years, required Eliza to appear at a number of state and federal court hearings, provide information for numerous government filings, and share her story with the courts and with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Ultimately, the federal immigration judge decided to grant her application for adjustment of status to become a legal permanent resident.
4. What was your biggest lesson- learned or personal growth moment during the process?
Throughout this process, I developed a further appreciation for how U.S. immigrants today want the same things they have always wanted — to build a better life for themselves and their children. It also was very exciting and personally moving to hear the judge tell Eliza that she could stay in the U.S. and would not be deported back to Guatemala and to encourage Eliza to “dream big.”
5. Why is it important for attorneys to engage as advocates for pro bono issues such as vulnerable, unaccompanied children?
These children do not have a way to navigate the legal system or the immigration system on their own. They have been the victims of harmful treatment in their home countries and have undertaken difficult and often terrifying journeys by themselves to reach the United States. As attorneys, we can serve as their advocates and help them feel that they have a support system and are entitled to the same chances as anyone else.
*The client’s name and certain details have been changed to protect the child’s identity.