Fighting for Unaccompanied Immigrant Children, One Client at a Time

mhagerty Michael Hagerty, ‘13 J.D.

In the middle of the agriculturally rich region of central California where the wide-open land is full of sun, dust and miles of crops, sits the Tulare County Superior Court in Visalia.

Three hours north of Los Angeles, situated in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, Visalia is nothing like Los Angeles.

In early June, Michael Hagerty, ‘13 J.D., a staff attorney with Public Counsel, a non-profit legal aid firm in Los Angeles, was in Visalia for the first time to represent a client in the Tulare County Probate Court. On that day a crucial guardianship hearing was set to take place—one that Hagerty knew was likely to determine the ultimate fate of his client’s immigration case. Though the process is complex, Hagerty knew that a favorable decision that day meant his client would likely get his green card eventually. A negative decision could very well have meant removal from the United States.

“The number of Unaccompanied Alien Children arriving in the United States has reached alarming numbers, straining the system put in place over the past decade to handle such cases,” Hagerty said. “From past experiences I knew we would have a hard time getting his guardianship petition granted.”

Prepared for the worst, Hagerty witnessed not only a favorable decision, but also an uncommon degree of understanding and empathy.

Hagerty represents a vulnerable and growing group of people in this country, Unaccompanied Alien Children. Unprecedented numbers of children are fleeing their home countries and entering the United States alone and without a parent.

Once they cross the border they immediately lack lawful immigration status in the United States, and those that are caught by the Border Patrol or present themselves to officers at the border are automatically placed in removal proceedings.

Most of Hagerty’s clients are escaping gangs and domestic violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, though children come in lesser numbers from other countries as well, including Mexico.

Francisco Montes-Montanez was, at the time, a 17-year-old living with extended family in Tulare County after fleeing to the United States from Mexico.

His father had died, poisoned from working in pesticide-ridden fields, and his mother refused to allow him to attend school and was forcing him to work in the same poisonous fields that killed his father. In addition, gangs had murdered some of his family members and had been asking questions about Montes-Montanez.

Through a series of events, he was referred to Public Counsel and Hagerty was assigned his case.

Once a child is in the United States they are sent to foster care, or to live with a sponsor or relative, while they await either deportation proceedings or to be granted Special Immigrant Juvenile status by the courts.

To quality for SIJ status a local juvenile court must first find that it is in the child’s best interest to stay in the United States, and that reunification with the child’s parents is not viable because of abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Hagerty arrived in Visalia and met with Montes-Montanez, with whom he had been working for several weeks, to prepare him for his hearing. Time was ticking because Montes-Montanez would soon be 18, and would no longer be eligible for SIJ status and would likely be deported. If things didn’t go well that day, he would likely have turned 18 before any kind of appeal or writ could be filed to the appellate court.

Hagerty prepared him to give direct testimony before the judge assigned to the case, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Antonio Reyes, which he feared would likely be required by a potentially unsympathetic court.

“Francisco was extremely nervous and very uncomfortable about the possibility of speaking about all the trauma he had suffered in Mexico in front of the judge in a public courtroom,” Hagerty said.

The proceedings started and Hagerty presented his petition and evidence before the judge. Montes-Montanez, with a very limited understanding of English, was terrified throughout the entire process.

“I was afraid that the judge was going to say ‘no’ and that I would lose my case and be sent back to my home country,” Montes-Montanez said. “I am afraid of returning because there is so much poverty there. I wouldn’t be able to study in school and I don’t want to be forced to join a gang.”

Reyes, who had not ruled on this very specific type of immigration guardianship case before, carefully reviewed the petition, asked Hagerty some questions, and then granted Montes-Montanez‘s request to apply for SIJ status.

Hagerty was ecstatic. “Things could not have gone better.”

But what happened next is what made that moment even better.

“After Judge Reyes granted the request and signed the documents, he sat there looking at Francisco for a long time,” Hagerty said.

Finally, he spoke.

He told Montes-Montanez that his father had also come to the United States by himself from Mexico when he was 17, Hagerty recalled. Reyes said that his father had fled Mexico to survive, just as Montes-Montanez had, and that because his father had done so he had the opportunity to be born in the United States, and to ultimately become a judge.

He said when he looked at Montes-Montanez he saw his father when he was 17.

Then Reyes got tears in his eyes. And everyone in the courtroom did as well, Hagerty said.

“It was a beautiful moment in the context of some very unpleasant dealings with judges in these SIJ cases, and with knowing the plight that these children have experienced before they arrived in the United States,” Hagerty said.

Currently Hagerty is helping Montes-Montanez file his SIJ status petition, which is expected to go smoothly.

SIJ status waives several types of restrictions that would otherwise prevent an adult immigrant from becoming a lawful permanent resident, Hagerty said. After that approval, immigration will terminate his deportation proceedings and he will be able to apply for his green card.

His recent hearing has cleared the way for Montes-Montanez to move forward with his life in the United States.

“I want to keep studying to become an architect or an engineer,” Montes-Montanez said. “I’m learning English right now. It was hard at first, but now I’m learning a lot faster. I know I’ll need to speak English well to be an architect, so I am trying very hard.”

Montes-Montanez’s other dream is to be successful in the United States so that he can help his family, who is very poor.

Hagerty is a 2013 Notre Dame Law School graduate and was a Shaffer Public Interest Fellow. During his public interest fellowship, he worked in a very similar capacity at Public Counsel by representing undocumented minors who wished to lead stable lives in the United States.

In these cases, the children had been brought to the United States by their parents when they were young and had lived most of their lives here without immigration status.

As a native Californian, Hagerty has always been aware of immigration issues. In addition, his mother is an immigrant from Nicaragua, so he was “already sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant.”

However, the first time public interest and immigration law sparked a professional interest was when he was a research assistant for Professor Paolo Carozza, Director of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies and Director of the Program for Law and Human Development at Notre Dame.

He performed field work and research while hiking the desert trails along the Arizona-Mexico border and traveled to Tohono O-odham Nation’s Reservation, an area that has witnessed the highest concentration of both migration and migration deaths along the border in recent years.

“I am grateful to Notre Dame for having provided me with the opportunity to gain real-world legal experience in the public interest field, both as a law student and as a fellow,” Hagerty said. “In our nation there is such a desperate need to provide legal services for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized, and through the Shaffer Fellowship, Notre Dame Law School continues to feed fresh blood into that fight.

“I may not end up changing the world through my work, but I have helped a handful of children who have suffered unimaginable trauma to lead safe and healthy lives with bright futures in the United States, and for those kids, and for me, that means the whole world.”