Courts Grapple With Dependency Pleas From Undocumented Teens

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – In a type of case it said has become increasingly common, a South Florida appeals court Wednesday rejected a legal-dependency request for a Guatemalan teen who entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant.

The ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal in a Palm Beach County case came a week after another appeals court rejected similar dependency requests for teens from El Salvador and Honduras.

In each of the cases, the courts said a determination of dependency stemming from issues such as neglect by parents would allow the teens to qualify for an immigration status that, in turn, would allow them to apply for permanent residency. Wednesday’s ruling said that dependency decisions should not focus on motivations, but it said “judicial resources too often are being misused to obtain dependency orders for minors who are neither abused, neglected or abandoned” and who are seeking “preferential immigration treatment without having to comply with the requirements of the customary legal immigration process.”

“While this court is sympathetic to the plight of alien minors seeking the opportunity of a better life in the United States, the role of the trial judge is not to set immigration policy or to decide whether, as a humanitarian gesture, any particular alien minor should be permitted to stay in the United States,” said the 2-1 ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Mark Klingensmith and joined by Chief Judge Cory Ciklin.

Broadly, dependency petitions involve going to court to seek protections for minors who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by parents or legal custodians.

In the Palm Beach County case, the Guatemalan teen said he had been abandoned by his father and that his mother had neglected him since he was age 12 by not providing enough food, water and clothing. The teen said he had been forced to drop out of school after sixth grade and work in the fields and that his mother had kicked him out of the house at age 17 because she couldn’t support him.

The teen, identified by the initials O.I.C.L, was picked up by immigration officials after he tried enter the United States illegally and was released to an uncle in Palm Beach County while immigration charges remained pending. The petition for dependency was filed 2 1/2 months before he turned 18.

A Palm Beach County circuit judge denied the dependency request, leading to the appeal. Appeals-court Judge Alan Forst, who dissented in Wednesday’s ruling, wrote that the lower court failed to address a key issue about whether the teen’s mother is “capable of providing supervision and care.”

“The limited evidence presented to the trial court establishes that she is not,” Forst wrote. “While the mother may be capable of supervision, the fact, established by the testimony of the child, that she was not able to provide food and water to the child is evidence of the mother’s demonstrated lack of capability to care for the child. The majority opinion fails to acknowledge this unrebutted allegation.”

But the majority urged caution in such cases, saying judges should not be a “rubber stamp.”

“Contrary to the assertions raised in the child’s petition, living conditions of the kind routinely found in many lesser-developed countries where parents are financially unable to support a child, including but not limited to situations such as dropping out of school at an early age, working fields for income to support a family, infrequent receipt of new clothes or shoes, and limited access to electricity or other utilities of any kind are, without more, insufficient to support a finding of dependency unless substantial, competent evidence supports a finding that the parents were financially able but refused to provide support … or that financial or relief services were offered to the parents and rejected,” the majority said.

“The News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders contributed to this report.”

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