Children’s Legal Program

Unaccompanied Minors

“I wasn’t worried because I had my AI JUSTICE attorney and God.”

Marta, featured along with her AI Justice Attorney on CNN’s “Latino in America,” 2011

AI Justice is one of the nation’s foremost non-profit law firms assisting unaccompanied immigrant children, providing free representation to virtually all detained minors in immigration custody in South Florida.  The Children’s Program was launched in 2001 following the case of 18-month old “Baby Margaret.” She had been smuggled into the U.S., and no one claimed her. An Immigration Judge asked her Deportation Officer if he was going to represent her. AI JUSTICE’s astonished attorney immediately volunteered to take her case pro bono. Since then AI JUSTICE has dedicated a legal team to represent these children and is the only non-profit organization providing comprehensive free legal services to children in federal custody in South Florida.

In 2005, AI Justice collaborated with six community partners to create the Immigrant Children’s Legal and Service Partnership (ICLASP).  This program was recognized by the Office of Refugee Resettlement as a “model program for care providers throughout the country.”

Recently there has been a significant increase (113% in June) in the number of children in detention including Haitian orphans who were abandoned soon after being brought here by adoptive parents.

AI Justice has influenced national policies and laws affecting immigrant children and is widely recognized as an expert in immigrant children’s issues. Staff helped shape new laws for expanding legal protections of unaccompanied immigrant children, incorporated into the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008.

“Words cannot describe how grateful I am.  Ever since Boystown, AI Justice has been there for me.  I am able to be a better person now, thanks to the help of wonderful lawyers that have guided me through various difficulties in life.  I attend a prestigious magnet school and I aspire to go into law, because I too want to make a difference.” 

Marie, Unaccompanied Minor

Notable Cases

Fega, Nigeria

Seven-year-old Fega arrived at a New York airport in May 2000.  A terrible rash covered her body, along with other signs of neglect.  No one came to pick her up.  Her mother, undocumented and scared, sent a note to immigration officials asking them to send Fega back to Nigeria.  But her father in Nigeria said he did not want her back.

AI Justice met Fega when she appeared alone in Miami Immigration Court.  Immigration had placed her in a local children’s shelter.  AI Justice fought for her legal relief.  Following a front page New York Times story about her plight, she was released to a relative in Connecticut after 15 months in detention.

Fega and her AI Justice attorney later attended a Senate hearing to call attention to the plight of children in immigration custody.

Alfredo Lopez , Guatemala

After years of physical abuse by his father, Alfredo fled Guatemala to save his life at age 14. He was detained by Immigration agents on arrival in 2001 and diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among other special needs. He only spoke a rare Mayan dialect, limiting his ability to communicate.

Alfredo was transferred among detention facilities 10 times, at times handcuffed and shackled. His request for asylum was denied, though the Immigration Judge believed he was terribly abused and would not be protected. AI Justice finally got permission from Immigration officials to take Alfredo’s case to state juvenile court, the first such consent in the Miami District. That led to his release after 18 months in detention. He went to live with the pro bono interpreter that AI Justice had found for him.

“Whenever I was taken somewhere,’’ Alfredo said, “AI Justice was always there to help me out and to visit me.” Ultimately, he got his green card and went to live and work in Ohio.

Ernso, Haiti

Ernso was 15 when he arrived on the October 2002 boat in Key Biscayne.  Shortly after being placed in immigration custody, he was determined to be an adult based on dental and wrist x-rays and placed in a detention center with male adults.

Despite being granted asylum in September 2003, Ernso was kept in detention while government attorneys appealed the judge’s decision.  A few months later, Ernso was ordered to report for deportation.  DHS eventually granted Ernso permission to take his case to state juvenile court and the judge ruled in his favor.  However, the Miami District Director denied Ernso a visa, arguing that he was not a minor even though the Florida court determined he was.  AI Justice challenged this decision and the Administrative Appeals Office ruled in Ernso’s favor. Just a few days before his eighteenth birthday, Ernso’s application for a green card was approved by the same immigration judge who a year and a half earlier had granted him asylum.

Click here to read more Notable Cases