TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A divided South Florida appeals court Wednesday rejected a legal-dependency request from four undocumented-immigrant children who entered the United States after their parents died in El Salvador.
The ruling by a panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal was one in a series of cases in which minors have fled Central American countries and sought determinations of dependency --- a status that could ultimately help them seek permanent residency in the United States.
The panel's majority, Chief Judge Richard Suarez and Judge Barbara Lagoa, did not provide a detailed explanation of their reasons, though Suarez wrote a concurring opinion that said he was "compelled to join" in upholding a circuit judge's decision because of appeals-court rulings in five earlier cases with similar circumstances.
But Judge Vance Salter wrote a dissenting opinion that said the case should be sent back to circuit court for an evidentiary hearing and more analysis. He also referred to questions about how such cases should be handled across the country and the interaction with federal immigration laws.
"It also bears noting that many other cases involving unaccompanied immigrant children --- frequently referred to as 'special immigrant juvenile' … cases because of the designation used in federal immigration law and recognized in a Florida statute --- have been filed throughout Florida and the United States over the past few years," Salter wrote. "Appellate opinions regarding these cases have illuminated the policy differences regarding immigration and whether state dependency courts should 'subordinate ourselves to the whim of the United States Congress' when asked to consider such cases. The Florida Supreme Court has declined to decide one such case on grounds of mootness (the immigrant juvenile became too old to be declared dependent during the pendency of the appellate proceedings), but other unaccompanied immigrant cases are pending before that (Supreme) Court."
Salter wrote that the four children said their mother was murdered in El Salvador in 2012 and their father died of diabetes in 2014. A family court in El Salvador later approved a petition for guardianship by their aunt. Salter wrote that the children and their aunt were threatened by a gang unless they paid $2,000 each for protection. They fled to the United States border where the children were separated from their aunt.
The children, identified only by the initials W.B.A.V., M.V.A.V., F.A.A.V. and J.E.A.V., were detained but subsequently released to an uncle who lives in Miami. The aunt also joined them in Miami. The children filed for a determination of dependency based on part of state law that applies to children who "have no parent or legal custodians capable of providing supervision and care," Salter wrote.
The petition for dependency was denied by the circuit judge. Salter wrote that the state Department of Children and Families has argued that the dependency petition was correctly denied because of the guardianship order in El Salvador.
While Wednesday's ruling did not provide a detailed discussion, court documents in earlier cases have said a determination of dependency can help children apply for a special immigration status and seek permanent residency.
Suarez, in his concurring opinion, pointed to the precedent from the earlier cases but indicated he otherwise shares Salter's views.
"Nevertheless, I share the concerns of Judge Salter in his dissent and would hope this matter will be looked at by the Florida Supreme Court," Suarez wrote. "I wholeheartedly agree with the policy and reasoning expressed by Judge Salter."