This is a guest blog post from justice AmeriCorps Fellow Stephanie Lubert ('15), of HIAS Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
There were many uncertainties in my life after graduating from college, but one thing was very clear – I wanted to better my community by assisting those most vulnerable. I chose to participate in a year of service with an AmeriCorps affiliated program, and during this time working with immigrants and refugees in Houston, Texas, I decided to continue on a path of service and advocacy. I went to law school with the goal of dedicating my career to legal aid. After graduation I once again turned to AmeriCorps, and in April 2015 joined HIAS Pennsylvania as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow. I am now entering my third year as an AmeriCorps Fellow, and I’m beyond grateful that AmeriCorps has provided me with the opportunity to work in a field I love, and to advocate for the most vulnerable in the community.
As a Fellow, I represent unaccompanied Central American children in removal proceedings. These children are fleeing abuse, gang violence, and neglect in their home countries. Once they are caught at the border, they are placed in removal proceedings designed for adults and, despite their vulnerability, are not guaranteed any kind of legal representation. Without legal assistance, there is a 90% likelihood that these children will be sent back to horrific conditions. Lack of legal counsel, combined with the dramatic surge of children entering the U.S., has led to a critical need for low-cost legal services. My project aims to give these children a fair chance at justice and a better future.
Since starting my term of service in April 2015, I have provided direct representation to over 100 children who otherwise would have no choice but to represent themselves in complex immigration proceedings. Of the children I have represented, 28 were granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (which allows children fleeing unsafe circumstances to become lawful permanent residents if they cannot be reunited with their parents) and five were granted asylum. In addition to providing legal services, I have connected my clients with social services and counseling.
One of my greatest successes has been winning asylum for a 17-year-old girl from El Salvador, who was relentlessly harassed and threatened by gang members for refusing to become the gang girlfriend, as well as kidnapped, drugged, and repeatedly raped. After 15 days, she was able to escape and move to another part of El Salvador, but her captors quickly found her and the threats resumed. Fearing for her life, she had no choice but to flee to the United States. On her way to the U.S., this child was drugged and raped by her guide, and upon entering the country, was released to a father she barely knew. Unable to handle the responsibility of parenthood, he abandoned her in the care of an uncle, who sexually assaulted her on numerous occasions. She fled her uncle’s home and attempted suicide, and because she did not have health insurance, the hospital treating her contacted me for guidance. I quickly found a safe place for her to live, referred her to counseling, helped her enroll in school, and found an attorney to file a Protection from Abuse petition against her uncle. Once her life stabilized, I helped her apply for, and ultimately secure, asylum. Now, she no longer lives in fear of deportation. She is excelling in school and making plans for college, something she never even dreamed would be possible. It is success stories like this that make me proud to be a public interest lawyer.