The Lawyer Giving Undocumented Youth Offenders a Fresh Start


Text by Kerri Punchuk, photos by Agatha Bacelar

On any given day in California, approximately 100,000 youth are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system. Holding 17,000 youth, the Los Angeles County juvenile justice system is the largest in the country, and its probation department is the largest in the world. But Los Angeles County is unique for another reason: it also has the largest number of inmates who are undocumented immigrants.

Barry J. Nidorf juvenile hall holds 700 incarcerated youths, 91% of which are of a minority background.

It’s no surprise that numbers of imprisoned, undocumented youth soar in an urban area like Los Angeles — job insecurity, exposure to gangs, racial profiling, and limited education options all put this group at risk. But amid the depressing statistics, there’s a bright spot for these kids: Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a unique classification designed to help immigrant children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected.

It’s with this population of youth that Jesus Mosqueda, an Emerson Equal Justice Works fellow, focuses his work. As a lawyer with Public Counsel, Jesus identifies and represents youth in the Los Angeles County juvenile justice system who qualify for SIJS.

Jesus is one of only three lawyers in the county who do this work. And for Jesus, it’s personal. As the son of immigrants from Mexico, he grew up in circumstances not unlike those his clients face. He’s also the first in his family to earn a professional degree. After college, Jesus served as a high school special education teacher in the South Central neighborhood with Teach for America before attending Berkeley Law School.

Building Their Cases

Jesus spends a vast majority of his time meeting with clients, all SIJS-eligible youth in group homes, on probation, or currently incarcerated, which sometimes means visits to the county juvenile halls. In meeting with his clients, much of Jesus’s work lies in uncovering the loaded, harrowing details that build a case for SIJS. He asks questions about his clients’ arrival in the U.S., about complex (or nonexistent) relationships with parents and guardians, and about criminal histories. Does the client understand that his parents’ actions constitute abuse and neglect? Is there any chance of a productive life for this person should he be deported back to the country he was taken from at four years old?

All of this information helps Jesus determine how to build the case and, further, how to prepare his client for the proceedings. In cases where SIJS might not be the best or most likely option for a client, he works to determine alternate legal action.

On a white board in his office, Jesus keeps a handwritten, color-coded roster of his clients organized by status: those ready for intake, cases in progress, and those scheduled for green card interviews. At far right, a column is reserved for names written in celebratory green — victors who, because of Jesus, have been awarded green cards and the chance at a new and better life.

How SIJS Helps Undocumented Youth

Established in 1990 as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act, SIJS puts at-risk immigrant children on a path to U.S. citizenship rather than deportation. In order to be eligible for the status, a case must meet three criteria: the child must be declared a ward of a juvenile court; it must not be in the child’s best interest to return to his home country; and the child must be unable to reunify with one or both of his parents due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect.

Upon exiting the juvenile justice system, SIJS-eligible youth are able to apply for a green card so that they can live and work permanently in the U.S. In other words, they’re granted a fresh start.

This program provides vulnerable undocumented youth with the best hope for extricating themselves from the web of circumstances that have landed them in juvenile detention. And surely thousands have missed their window of opportunity simply due to lack of legal representation. With early assistance, these kids can stop living in fear of deportation and start over upon exiting the juvenile justice system. SIJS furthers the ideas of rehabilitation, renewal, and second chances — those loose promises upon which the U.S. criminal justice system was founded yet too often fails to deliver.