An 18-year-old Lake Worth youth is likely headed back to his poverty-wracked Guatemalan homeland as a result of a Florida Supreme Court decision that immigration advocates said will hurt thousands of children who fled across the border in search of better lives.
A deeply divided court on Thursday rejected an appeal filed on behalf of the youth identified only as O.I.C.L. His lawyers sought to have him declared a ward of the state — a finding that would have enabled him to permanently remain in the United States under a special federal immigration law for juveniles — but the court’s majority decided he wasn’t eligible because he has turned 18 since the case was filed and is therefore an adult.
“We dismiss this case as moot,” Justice Ricky Polston wrote in an opinion joined by justices Charles Canady, Peggy Quince and R. Fred Lewis.
The opinion drew fire from three other justices, who said the majority ignored that O.I.C.L. was 17 when he asked to be declared dependent on the state — the same age as many of an estimated 40,000 immigrant children who streamed across the border in 2015 seeking permanent residency. An estimated 3,000 ended up in Florida.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga also wrote in a dissenting opinion that the majority sidestepped evidence that O.I.C.L. may have deserved state protection. A federal agency placed him with his uncle in Lake Worth after his single mother told him she could no longer provide him food or water, sparking a 5,000-mile journey that ended when he was picked up by border patrol agents.
Instead of rejecting his appeal, Labarga wrote, the court should have sent the case back to Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Joseph Marx, who failed to address the totality of the youth’s circumstances but merely ruled that the uncle was a good caretaker so there was no reason for the state to be involved.
“The trial court in this case did not apply the correct law when it failed to make any factual findings about whether O.I.C.L. had a parent or legal custodian capable of providing supervision and care,” Labarga wrote in a dissent joined by justices Barbara Pariente and James E.C. Perry. The uncle, he pointed out, was not the youth’s legal guardian.
Applauding Labarga’s dissent, immigration advocates said the majority opinion sends a chilling message to thousands in similar straits.
“It’s going to hurt a lot of people,” said Brandon Smoot, a Tallahassee immigration attorney who had joined others, including Americans for Immigrant Justice and Florida’s Children First, who filed briefs on O.I.C.L.’s behalf. “This is a real step back.”
“It’s very disheartening,” agreed attorney Liah Frazier, who along with Lake Worth lawyer Jan Peter Weiss represented O.I.C.L.. “These kids just want to be safe. I was hoping this case would help.”
State judges have reached wildly different conclusions about how to handle immigrant children, which is how the case reached the Supreme Court. Smoot said he has represented immigrant youth in similar situations as O.I.C.L. who have been granted permanent residency.
Under federal law, to be allowed to stay in the U.S., a juvenile must first convince a state court judge that he has been abused, neglected and abandoned and therefore should be declared a ward of the state. Once that finding is made, a federal immigration judge can grant the youth what is known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which allows him to remain in the country. Judges have disagreed as to whether the mistreatment must have taken place here or in the youth”s home country.
Smoot scoffed at the court’s ruling that the case was moot because O.I.C.L. is 18. “It’s a cop-out,” he said. State courts can continue to oversee youth until they are 22. Under immigration laws, a juvenile becomes an adult at age 21, Smoot said. “It’s bad law and bad legal reasoning,” he said of the decision.
Buoyed by Labarga’s dissent, Smoot and Frazier said they are hopeful the court will take up another case and address the troubling issues. That could help other immigrant children, but probably won’t alter O.I.C.L.’s fate. “It does not look good for him,” Frazier said.