EDITOR’S NOTE: Yesenia asked KQED not to use her last name because she’s an undocumented immigrant.
Jennifer and Yesenia stand in the living room of their modest two-bedroom apartment.
Their eyes are shut tight, in prayer. The sisters are anxious and uneasy.
Today is one of the most important days in their lives.
In about an hour, they’ll face a Superior Court judge who will decide whether Yesenia should have permanent legal custody of her little sister, a move that could pave the way for Jennifer to stay here legally under a special kind of immigration status.
Yesenia was reunited with her sister just about a year ago, after 10 years of being apart.
“Yes, I’m really nervous,” Yesenia says. “God willing, [the judge] won’t send her away from me. If she goes back [to El Salvador] again … I’ll lose her completely. That’s my biggest fear.”
Jennifer, 17, arrived last year to live with her 34-year-old sister, Yesenia, in San Mateo County. She was part of that wave of thousands of Central American kids who came to the U.S. fleeing gang violence.
Jennifer is now trying to stay by applying for a special kind of immigration relief. But building her legal case is forcing the sisters to confront a painful family secret.
For the past couple months, they’ve been working with a well-known pro bono attorney by the name of Jennifer Horne. She offers legal representation for immigrant children at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
I visited Horne at her Redwood City office before the sisters’ court hearing.
“I think she has a good case,” says Horne, who has Jennifer’s court file spread out across her desk.
It’s Horne’s job to make the case that Jennifer should get what is called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.
She says Jennifer qualifies because her biological father abandoned her years ago, and her mother has now taken refuge in a church in El Salvador after gangs threatened her and her son.
They haven’t seen Jennifer’s father because he never stuck around.
Yesenia knows this. Her mother knows this. But neither of them ever could bring themselves to tell Jennifer the truth.
Yesenia, whose dad left when she was 4 years old, says Jennifer’s real father left their mom before Jennifer was even born.
“I think my mother was lonely,” Yesenia says. “This man came along and was treating her well. She was always looking for that kind of attention from men.”
Their mother got pregnant, but Jennifer’s father urged her to have an abortion.
So Jennifer grew up thinking another man was her real dad. Eventually, like the others, he also left.
Jennifer’s legal case, however, depends on the court knowing what happened to her father.
As a result, Yesenia got her mom on the phone a few weeks ago, and both of them told Jennifer the truth. Yesenia says their mom had several men in her life.
“It hurts me so much,” Yesenia admits, tears streaming down her face. “My father and her father never knew when we had problems, or if we had food on the table. They never knew anything.”
Jennifer is still trying to make sense of what her mom revealed.
“[My mom] never talked to me about this before,” Jennifer says. “That my father wasn’t my father … it was some man I’ve never even met.”
The man who Jennifer thought was her dad was actually her younger brother’s father, but Jennifer says she “loved him like my father.”
An increasing number of child migrants in the U.S. right now are in Jennifer’s position — dredging up family histories in an effort to stay in the U.S. legally.
Almost 6,000 young people applied for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status in the fiscal year that ended Sep. 30. That’s more than triple the number four years earlier. First, they must show that at least one of their parents abandoned, neglected or abused them. If they prove that, they can apply to stay.
Immigration lawyers say this is easier than applying for asylum in many cases.
Jennifer is now about to take the first step in this process at the San Mateo County Superior Courthouse.
The sisters make their way through security at the courthouse.
They’re on edge.
Their attorney, Horne, has her own private doubts at this moment. It has been difficult for her to assemble all the necessary evidence and documentation from El Salvador to prove Jennifer’s case. And she had a last-minute scramble to meet the judge’s request for some additional material.
Horne quickly goes over the game plan outside the courtroom.
“Obviously, the judge has not seen the papers I just filed,” Horne explains to Jennifer and Yesenia. “He will mostly talk to me, but he might have a question for you.”
The sisters are seated on a long wooden bench with their arms wrapped around each other.
The courtroom door opens, and the sisters follow Horne to their seats in front of the judge’s podium.
Superior Court Judge Joseph Scott whips open Jennifer’s court file, analyzes the evidence and looks directly at the 17-year-old.
Judge Scott: “Has anyone made any recent attempts to locate Jennifer’s father in El Salvador? Any attempts at all?”
Horne replies: “We have made every attempt to try and locate him … he might be deceased, he might be in another country. We simply have no leads.”
Scott asks more questions, takes off his glasses and then issues his ruling.
He finds Jennifer’s father did in fact abandon her. He also grants Yesenia legal guardianship over her sister.
Once they leave the courtroom, tears start flowing.
The sisters are locked in a tight embrace.
Jennifer is speechless.
Then, finally, she smiles.
Jennifer knows her chance to win legal immigration status is much closer. Still, the sisters and their mom have been forced into new emotional territory:
A daughter who now wants to ask her mother and sister, “Why keep this secret for so many years?”
And a sister and mother who must now explain their family’s past, as they work to secure Jennifer’s future.