LINCOLN — In two separate rulings Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered judges in Omaha and Lincoln to allow teenagers fleeing from violence and gangs in Guatemala to apply for special immigration status, which eventually could lead to obtaining legal status in the U.S.
The two county court judges, Thomas Harmon in Douglas County and Holly Parsley in Lancaster County, had declined to rule on whether they qualified to apply for special immigrant juvenile status. If granted by federal officials, it would allow them to remain in the country and seek lawful permanent resident status.
Both judges had ruled that such decisions should be made by the separate juvenile courts in those counties, and could not be made by the county court.
But the Supreme Court, in rulings written by Justice Lindsey Miller-Lerman, disagreed, citing a state law that went into effect July 19 clarifying that county court judges can make such rulings.
One of the youths, identified only as Carlos D., said he was repeatedly beaten by a stepfather, then told that he was “a mistake/error” by his mother after the stepfather abandoned the family. Carlos D. said he fled Guatemala after he was regularly intimidated, robbed and beaten by members of MS-13, who were trying to force him to join the gang.
The other youth, identified only as Luis J., said he fled to the U.S. after repeated beatings by an alcoholic father, who assaulted him when he tried to protect his mother and forced him to quit school at age 11 so he could go to work.
Both teenagers had local relatives who were granted guardianship over them.
Roxana Cortes Reyes, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Center of Omaha, said the rulings, as well as the passage of Legislative Bill 670, represent a victory in clarifying what power rests with local judges. She said her agency had seen past cases like those decided on Friday in which judges were unsure of their authority, and helped State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha draft language in LB 670 to clarify the law.
The special immigrant status, Cortes Reyes said, is granted after a review by federal officials, and granted only when it is not prudent for children to return to their native land due to abuse, neglect or abandonment.
Besides the Immigrant Legal Center of Omaha, the youths were represented by Lincoln attorney David Chipman and the Nebraska Appleseed Center, with assistance from legal clinics at the University of Nebraska and Creighton law schools.