For its work to reunite children in immigration detention centers with their families, Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ) has been awarded the Paul C. Doyle Children’s Advocacy Award. The award, which is given biannually, recognizes high quality legal representation and systemic legal advocacy for Florida’s low-income children by programs that receive Children’s Legal Services grants from The Florida Bar Foundation.
In early 2018, the Department of Homeland Security began to refer immigrants who crossed the border without permission to the Department of Justice to face prosecution under a new zero-tolerance policy. As a result, thousands of children were separated from their parents upon apprehension by Customs and Border Protection.
For more than 20 years, AIJ has been the only agency providing legal services to children detained in Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters in South Florida. These shelters are normally populated with unaccompanied minors, but in 2018, there was a sudden, dramatic shift. The majority of the children were now separated minors, many under the age of eight. Many of the children were suffering from severe trauma, and few spoke English. Some of the children were so young they did not know their parent’s full name or their own age.
AIJ responded rapidly, shifting resources. They produced a coloring book that allowed staff attorneys and shelter advocates to successfully communicate with vulnerable children and worked around the clock for eight weeks to reunify children with their families.
AIJ successfully reunited 100 of 120 children with their families. Although the policy officially ended in 2018, AIJ continues to work on reunification and immigration court cases.
The Florida State University College of Law Public Interest Law Center Children’s Advocacy Clinic was the first runner-up. The clinic’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Law Project uses direct representation and community outreach to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
Children who are trafficked but not already involved in the dependency system are unable to access the same services as foster children. With the clinic’s help, children can receive treatment in a safe harbor program without first being in foster care. The clinic has also collaborated with a local teen drop-in center to provide workshops for homeless youth at risk of trafficking. The clinic trains lawyers to advocate for trafficking survivors as well.
The second runner-up was the University of Miami School of Law Children and Youth Clinic, which collaborated with the school’s health rights and immigration clinics to end the categorical, summary dismissals of private dependency petitions based on an immigrant child’s intent to seek special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS). Their efforts resulted in a Florida Supreme Court decision that unanimously held that the intent of the child to seek SIJS is not a basis to deny the petition.
The Paul C. Doyle Children’s Advocacy Award, which was sponsored by Carlton Fields, was presented June 27 at The Florida Bar Foundation’s 43rd Annual Reception & Dinner at the Boca Raton Resort and Club during The Florida Bar Annual Convention.