Caught in the middle

For Aziz Alfassa, the party can only happen before his 21st birthday on Dec. 12, and, as the date approaches, he's becoming less hopeful he'll be celebrating and more worried he'll be facing deportation to a hostile homeland or a life in the United States as an illegal.

"I'm scared for my life with what's going on," says the soft-spoken young man. "You want to do the best you can, but how can you move from Point A to Point B if the choice is not in your hands?"

Alfassa is a native of Togo, a small West African country that's been cited by Human Rights Watch for failing to protect against child trafficking. In 2002, Amnesty International criticized Togo's ruling government for human rights violations including violence against members of opposition political parties.

Seven years ago, Alfassa's father, an adviser to a political party opposing the current government, had gone into hiding, and the Togolese government's attention turned to his then-14-year-old son, Aziz. He says police detained and beat him, questioning him about his father's whereabouts. Alfassa was living with relatives and didn't know where his father was. Fearing for his life, he escaped to Grand Rapids with a Ugandan woman whose son-in-law lived there.

When the teen's tourist visa expired, he landed at Freedom House, a Detroit organization that serves asylum seekers. Attorney David Koelsch was the legal director there at that time. He shepherded Alfassa's case through the complicated web of immigration law. With his father's location unknown — last they heard he was in a refugee camp in Ghana — and his mother deceased, the Wayne County Juvenile Court became Alfassa's guardian in 2004.

He lived with a foster family and graduated from Holy Redeemer High School with grades good enough to qualify for a scholarship, had he been a citizen. He attended Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn until his money ran out this year. He's worked when he could find a job.

In January 2006, Alfassa filed a petition with U.S. Customs and Immigration Services seeking Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. (See "Caught in the Crossfire: Immigration issues can make college a complicated proposition," Jan. 30, 2008). Undocumented children and teens who are wards of a court because they have been abused, orphaned or abandoned can file for the status, which gives them permanent residency. With his mother dead and his father's whereabouts unknown, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Leslie Kim Smith made Alfassa a ward of the court writing "it would not be in this child's best interest to return to his home country."

But SIJS requests expire when petitioners are adopted or reach 21, and they have no legal basis to be in the United States, Koelsch says. That doesn't leave Alfassa much time. His three-year-old application has been pending much longer than the usual wait, Koelsch says, although there is no legal deadline for decisions.

"Typically it's about six months. He's way over the outside limit," says Koelsch, who is now the director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. "We haven't heard a damn thing."

Calls to the Detroit field office of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services were not returned. According to the Office of Immigration Statistics, 912 SIJS petitions were granted in 2006, up from 679 in 2005.

William Johnson, superintendent of the Michigan Children's Institute, the division of the state Department of Human Services handling foster care, says of the roughly 19,000 children in the state foster care system, just 30 are not U.S. citizens. They have not been screened to see if they are undocumented or would otherwise qualify for SIJS, he says.

"We do routinely check for citizenship," Johnson says. "If we find they are not citizens, I think, unfortunately, we do not routinely go through the steps for applying for SIJS."

The state does not have a policy instructing caseworkers to consider SIJS applications for children and youths, according to Johnson.

"We also would need to identify resources to help with the process of applying for SIJS," he says. "This is really a process that should be handled by immigration attorneys on behalf of kids. It shouldn't be caseworkers doing this. It's a very complicated legal process. ... We do need specialized resources to be able to help these kids."

Alfassa, at least, had help from Koelsch getting his case filed and had an interview with immigration officials more than a year ago. Koelsch continues to write letters every month to keep the case "on the radar." "It's in the pile," he says. But Koelsch can't understand why it's taking officials so long to make a decision. "It's not like he's a threat to national security. He's a kid," he says.

Alfassa, in the meantime, is looking for work. He reads, continues to learn English and lifts weights in the southwest Detroit home where he lives with three other young men.

"I want to get a better job and have a better life, but I can't do none of that if I don't have a green card," he says. "I'm young, but nobody here is listening. I need to know something. It's not fair for me to just stay in the house every day."

He also stays in contact with his two younger half brothers, ages 14 and 15, who live in Grand Rapids with adopted families. They came separately to the United States.

"My brothers are doing good," Alfassa says. "I let them know not to let my stuff get to them. They're still young and they're going to school. That's all they need to worry about now."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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