When 3L Andressa Marques helps juvenile clients with their special immigration status cases in the Richmond Law Children’s Defense Clinic, she has a special advantage. When she came to the United States with her family from Brazil in 2000, she found herself in a similar position as some of her clients: starting over in a foreign country, with few connections and no English skills. “Coming to the United States not knowing anything was really hard for us in the beginning,” said Marques. And so she starts her conversations with young clients by relating to them: “I was you, and it will be OK," she tells them. 

Marques and her family spent six years going through the immigration process upon their arrival in the United States. An attorney helped her family through a process marked by tears, heartache, and fear of being deported. In their work with the immigration attorney, Marques had to act as an interpreter for her parents, using the English that she was quickly learning in school to translate American “legalese.” Throughout the experience, Marques looked at the lawyer and thought to herself, “That’s going to be me in a few years.” 

Today, Marques continues to translate “legalese,” but in a different setting. Through the law school’s Children’s Defense Clinic, Marques and other students work with immigrant children who are hoping to stay in the United States. Since many of their clients come from Central and Southern America, Marques is one of several law students who also serves as a translator (she speaks Spanish in addition to Portuguese). “The fact that I’m speaking their language gives them some sense of comfort,” said Marques. 

In most of these cases, a child has come to the United States to join a family member. Often guided by a coyote (a people smuggler) to escape gang violence, neglect, or poverty, that child ends up detained without the proper documentation upon arrival in the United States. A family member can take temporary custody, but that doesn’t stop the deportation proceedings from starting. 

One thing that can pause those deportation proceedings is to ask the Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). To receive this status, the judge must determine that the child suffered abandonment, abuse, or neglect that is so serious that it would be in his or her best interest to stay in the United States. 

It’s not a permanent fix, explains Julie McConnell, director of the clinic. But it “opens the doors to the immigration court, so they can stay in the U.S. legally while they apply for a green card.” 

One of the obstacles for the juvenile immigrants, though, is that they often go into these hearings unrepresented. It’s a complicated legal matter which must be brought before court as part of a formal custody determination case. And that’s where the Richmond Law clinic comes in. The Legal Aid Justice Center refers cases to the clinic, and McConnell assigns each case to a pair of students to oversee from beginning to end. 

“If it were not for the clinic and other pro bono attorneys, many of these children would face the court without representation,” said McConnell. In the process of helping their clients, the students learn a wide breadth of skills, from how to file petitions to how to have foreign birth certificates translated for the court. “There are so many rich learning experiences for the students,” said McConnell. 

Next year, Marques will put those skills to good use in her job as a clerk for an immigration judge in Charlotte, N.C. It was a competitive application process, with 3,000 applications for 100 potential spots across the country, and the position will enable Marques “to see firsthand how the judge rules in these cases.” It’s an experience that she thinks will serve her well in her goal to become an immigration law attorney. 

3L Colin McNamara is another clinical student who represents juvenile immigrant clients. After working with his 14-year-old client for four months, he presented his first SIJS case before a judge in December, with positive results: The judge granted special status. “I really felt for the first time that I just changed someone’s life,” said McNamara, adding that taking part in the clinic was the “best decision I made in law school.” After granting the child the special status, the judge asked her a few questions, including, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Using the English skills she’d developed in her short time in the United States, she looked at McNamara as she responded: “A lawyer.”