Foreign-born young adults in U.S. find their status uncertain as they `age out'

Advocates say INS drags its feet processing green card applications

November 25, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SEATTLE -- She came here as a 9-year-old, carrying a passport, birth certificate and little else as her aging grandparents in Ethiopia sought a better life for her in America. For years, she bounced from foster home to foster home in New Jersey and Seattle.

Merone Wolde-Meskel is now 18, a new mother and a high-school senior, desperate to become a legal U.S. resident. Although she applied nearly a year ago for permanent residency -- a green card -- her application has stalled in the local Immigration and Naturalization Service office.

Wolde-Meskel worries that she could face deportation to a country where her roots have long dissolved and she no longer speaks the native tongue.

"If they deny me, what happens? I'm praying," said Wolde-Meskel, who attends Garfield High School and is studying to be a dental assistant.

Without a green card, she'll be denied public benefits, such as welfare, food stamps and anything but emergency health care, and she won't qualify for student loans, said her attorney, Larry Katzman of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Law Project.

Wolde-Meskel, who calls herself Mia, applied for residency under an INS provision called Special Immigrant Juvenile status, which allows certain juveniles who have been abused, neglected or abandoned to apply for permanent residency if they are in the U.S. without their parents.

This week her attorneys filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court asking that the INS be ordered to process her application. The INS says the juvenile must be under 21 and declared by a juvenile court to be dependent upon the state and eligible for foster care.

The problem in Wolde-Meskel's case is that, when she turned 18 in August, she became an adult in the eyes of state law and was no longer eligible for protection under juvenile court. Her attorney persuaded the court to continue its jurisdiction until the end of January, when she finishes high school.

In immigration circles, Wolde-Meskel's plight is known as "aging out," the problem of juveniles becoming adults before the INS acts on the residency petitions. Since January, Katzman has written eight letters to the local INS office urging it act on Wolde-Meskel's petition before she loses her eligibility.

The only official responses he received were a series of brief memos from INS saying the case was not being neglected.

"We are treating it with the sensitivity it requires due to its urgency," INS officials wrote to Katzman in September, a month after Wolde-Meskel had turned 18.

Local INS officials say the petition is on hold because the agency isn't convinced she has exhausted attempts to be reunited with her family in Africa -- though Wolde-Meskel said she hasn't seen or heard from her mother since she left for America and doesn't know whether her family is still alive.

Irene Mortensen, spokeswoman for the local INS office, said her agency needs proof of abandonment.

"What we're seeing happening is that people send their kids to the U.S. for reasons that are logical, but they're not abandoned or abused," she said.

Chak Ng, director of the refugee and foster-care program at Lutheran Social Services, whose agency placed Wolde-Meskel in foster care, said INS concerns should have been satisfied once she was declared a dependent by the courts.

"INS is ducking the issue," Ng said. "The bottom line is the court is satisfied she was abandoned. She had been living away from her family for over eight years. It seems abandonment should be self-evident."

He said the most egregious part of the case is that INS has been sitting on Wolde-Meskel's petition without raising the concerns with Katzman before she turned 18.

National immigration organizations say the delays in Wolde-Meskel's case are not unusual. Katzman says he has two other similar cases, one of which has been pending for almost three years. Both of those clients are now over 18.

Kathy Brady, with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, figures there are as many as 5,000 of these juvenile cases filed each year. Often, she said, they don't even come to the attention of authorities until they try to enroll in college or get a job.

There's no evidence INS is deporting those who "age-out" of the application process, but that doesn't mean they can't, said Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles.

"You end up with thousands of adolescents reaching the age of majority who could have been legalized under the law enacted by Congress," Schey said, "who instead will continue living in undocumented status with all the social ills that involves."

Pub Date: 11/25/99

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