MVLS Volunteers Help Children and Families Through Unaccompanied Youth Project

MVLS volunteer attorneys help children fleeing danger in their home countries through our partnership with Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), the Esperanza Center and the University of Maryland Immigration Clinic. These children, known as “Unaccompanied Youth”, are already in the United States living with adult sponsors, usually family members. They seek Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) in order to remain here.

A state court order is a prerequisite to filing for SIJS with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). MVLS volunteers are paired with the adult sponsors of children for their initial state court cases. For lawyers familiar with Maryland custody law, taking on this type of case is a natural fit. There is only one additional step beyond a normal custody case – obtaining a predicate order for SIJS. After the predicate order is established, another attorney represents the child before USCIS.

MVLS volunteers are paired with adult sponsors living in Baltimore City and County, Anne Arundel County, Frederick County, and all other counties that MVLS serves. The MVLS community has been crucial in enabling programs like KIND to stay afloat. “We work well together,” said Jennifer Jaimes, KIND’s Supervising Attorney for Pro Bono Programs. “I would say that KIND’s partnership with MVLS has been key in a moment where our services to children have been increasing. We get a lot of referrals.”

In the past few months, MVLS volunteers have accepted dozens of SIJS cases. Laurie Hansen, an MVLS volunteer attorney, took a SIJS case both to learn something new and to help vulnerable children. MVLS volunteer José Canto also had altruistic intent: “Helping these children obtain green cards puts them on the path towards success in this country,” he said. But he also anticipated a long-term business benefit. “As these children grow older and inevitably need legal help, who do you think they are going to call?” he asked. “The pro bono attorney who helped them get a green card,” he said. “You have a client for life.”

KIND and Esperanza have offered an increasingly strong network of support to pro bono attorneys. Lawyers who aren’t fluent in Spanish get in-person interpreters. Every MVLS volunteer is connected to a staff attorney for big-picture advice and mentorship, and for the smaller questions there’s a “Random Questions” listserv. Ms. Hansen accepted a joint Esperanza Center-MVLS case. “I relied on the Esperanza Center attorney for help. She provided sample pleadings,” Ms. Hansen said. “I also got a volunteer interpreter from the Esperanza Center.”

In the past three years, KIND has already helped over 300 children in Maryland. MVLS volunteers have stepped up to provide quality legal representation in their state court proceedings. The KIND-MVLS relationship has been mutually beneficial. Mr. Canto enjoyed working with KIND mentors. “The personalities you’ll encounter in this line of work make the work worth doing,” he said. And KIND has appreciated MVLS volunteer help. “It has been a blessing,” Ms. Jaimes said. “Really.”

If you’re interested in participating in the Unaccompanied Youth Project, or have additional questions, please contact MVLS Deputy Director Susan Francis at sfrancis@mvlslaw.org or 443-451-4084.

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