Miguel’s first day at Wellstone International High School was confusing and overwhelming. He didn’t understand any English. He knew nothing about the school system, the culture, GPA, credits or college. He was more interested in getting a job and earning as much money as possible.
For two years, Miguel had been traveling, doing hard labor and sleeping in barns. He finally made his way to the United States as an unaccompanied minor. The adults in his life hadn’t been helpful. His uncle in Minnesota agreed to care for him, but their relationship was rocky. Miguel didn’t place much faith in school or in the immigration court process.
“Before we connected with Legal Aid, the only advice I knew to give kids was – You CANNOT miss court!” – says Minneapolis Public School (MPS) Coordinator Mayra Garcia-Rivera. “But I couldn’t find legal advocates to help them. Even private attorneys declined. I had no idea how to truly support the kids. The call I got from Legal Aid was the biggest blessing we had as a district.”
Over the three years since that call, Legal Aid attorneys have been going at least once a month to Wellstone and other MPS high schools. They meet individually with students like Miguel who are facing immigration court dates. Some students receive advice, some get full representation, and some are passed to pro bono attorneys who work in partnership with Legal Aid.
Legal Aid immigration staff also present an ongoing series of “Know Your Rights” clinics. They provide accurate, timely information about immigration and benefits, in English and Spanish, for students, parents, and school counselors.
“One girl asked me ‘What happens when my parents get deported?’” says staff attorney Laura Wilson. “It exemplified what these kids are feeling. She saw it as inevitable, that ICE would be coming any day to get her parents. I get a lot of questions from high school students about how to get custody of their younger siblings.”
“The connection with Legal Aid has been so important to the school district,” says Garcia-Rivera. “The attorneys are very responsive. We look at all the possible pieces and provide holistic support, integrating legal help with academics.”
Garcia-Rivera and Wilson worked closely with Miguel and his uncle. Wilson made sure everyone understood their rights and responsibilities, and the importance of Miguel staying in school. The Immigration Court terminated Miguel’s removal proceedings. Special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) is a special category for minors who can’t reunify with parents because of abuse, neglect or abandonment, and it is not in their best interest to return. Miguel now has SIJS status and health insurance, and is waiting for approval of his application for lawful permanent residence, with a clear path to citizenship.
“These kids come from complex situations,” says Garcia-Rivera. “Their focus is on survival. But the holistic attention to their problems, starting with their legal status, flips their vision. They begin to have goals and dreams.”
Miguel’s performance on the English Language Learners scale has jumped from level 1 to level 4, and his mindset has changed completely. He showed Garcia-Rivera the essays he wrote about those first days at Wellstone. He now dreams of becoming a writer, and writing books in a combination of English and Spanish.
“It’s so moving to see how he has grown academically,” says Garcia-Rivera. “Miguel received a level of support from Legal Aid that has changed his life.” Leykn Schmatz