When the young woman talks about her birthplace in Burundi, she twists her fingers in a delicate silver chain around her neck.

The simple necklace once belonged to her mother, who died when the woman was a baby. She was placed in the care of a relative in Burundi and then Tanzania. She does not talk about her childhood, but she later says she did not believe she would live until her 18th birthday.

When the young woman was 16, a relative she had not seen for many years learned about her unsafe living situation. He showed up one day with a plane ticket to the United States and told her to pack quickly. The silver necklace is one of the few personal items the woman brought from Africa.

She left the rest behind.

“It’s just a place I do not really visit in my thoughts,” said the woman, who turned 18 this year.

The Portland Press Herald is not naming the young woman because of the abuse and trauma she experienced as a child in her home country.

That plane ticket and a temporary visitor visa brought her to the Portland International Jetport in May 2015. The girl knew nothing about her destination, but her relative had connected with members of the Burundian community in Maine. She is one of a growing number of children who have immigrated alone to the United States, including an unknown number who have settled in Maine.

Local Burundians took her in at first, but they couldn’t provide a permanent place for the teenager to live. She slept on one couch after another. In October 2015, the young teenager landed at the homeless shelter for teens across the street from Preble Street Teen Center in Portland.

She had no guardian, no resources and no plan.

“There is this constant gray space where you’re just living,” she said, remembering that time. “There is this point where you’re just there.”

Then, six months after the young woman arrived in the United States, Lucky Hollander found her.

CHILDREN ALONE

In 2013, Hollander met another young girl from Africa.

The girl was a teenager who came to the United States for high school and intended to eventually return home. But violence escalated in her native country, and she lost contact with her family. She had no place to go when a school social worker reached out to Hollander, who has a background in child welfare and bedrooms left empty by adult children. Hollander took the girl in.

An immigration attorney told Hollander about special immigrant juvenile status, known as SIJ. This status grants legal permanent residence, also called a green card, to unaccompanied immigrant minors who are in the United States, have been abused, neglected or abandoned and cannot reunite with their families. It is a pathway to legal status that is experiencing a surge in demand, with the number of SIJ applications increasing from 1,600 in 2010 to nearly 20,000 last year. That spike is connected in particular to violence in Latin America, which has driven many children alone to the United States.

Hollander and her husband applied to be legal guardians for the girl and helped her get SIJ status. As a result, she can legally live and work in the United States; she is now a college student.

Hollander created an informal group called Helpful Links to help other unaccompanied minors in Portland. She has worked with more than 30 children – one as young as 12 – in four years. In Maine, she said these children often come to the United States legally on student or visitor visas. Then, they become abruptly cut off from their relatives and must fend for themselves without adults.

Some children travel directly to Maine from their home countries; some moved here from other states. Not all stay, but those who do are often unsure where to turn for help.

“This kid wakes up one morning, and he’s in the United States, and the plan the adults told him isn’t the plan anymore,” Hollander said.

Two years ago, the Burundian teenager was like many Hollander meets – homeless, alone and scared.

“She had a really traumatic background in coming, and we wanted to get her out of the shelter,” Hollander said. “She clearly didn’t want to talk about her circumstances. She didn’t trust people.”

Hollander brought the teenager into her house in October 2015. Hollander’s friends agreed to be her guardians and mentors. In November 2015, she moved in with Nate and Nancy Nickerson in Portland.

A young Burundian woman holds a bracelet she bought at a bazaar in Africa; the beaded flag is that of her home country. The bracelet is one of the few personal items she brought when she fled to the United States. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“Right away we could see how bright she is, and we were both impressed with her intelligence as well as level of interest in global politics and issues of racial inequality,” Nancy Nickerson wrote in an email. “These were the topics of dinner table conversations – not how and when she could get a ride to the mall, how come we did not have cable.”

The teenager began to let her guard down. She immersed herself in her Portland high school. She became a leader in youth groups and school clubs such as Model United Nationals. She speaks four languages – English, Kirundi, French and Swahili – and tutored multilingual students.

“It’s so different having a home, right?” she said. “For me, it was like two very different understandings of what a home was, starting to restructure that in my mind. … It was positive, great. … What’s the word? I don’t know the word. It’s like all good things wrapped up with, like, a cherry on top and cake and ice cream and all the junk food you could want.”

But she still needed permission to stay.

LEARNING ABOUT IMMIGRATION SYSTEM

The woman came to the United States on a temporary visitor visa.

She knew she would need to extend that visa to stay in the country, but she didn’t know much else about the American immigration system. The first time she heard the term “alien” used for an immigrant, she thought it was a nickname.

“It was not until later I found out ‘aliens’ are what you call non-U.S. citizens,” she said. The normally bubbly teenager spoke slowly and quietly. “It was interesting to see the language that is even being used when referring to human beings.”

To qualify for SIJ status, the woman needed to submit her application before her 18th birthday in January 2017. She could also file for asylum, but the asylum system is less certain and takes longer; a national backlog of cases means she would wait years even for an initial interview. SIJ status was created specifically so minors who have been traumatized don’t have to go through that process.

“They’re young, and they have nobody,” Hollander said. “They are in a special circumstance.”


‘Special Immigrant Juvenile’ petition approvals nationwide, by federal fiscal year

Child immigrants who have been abused or abandoned and cannot reunite with family can be given special juvenile status. There is no data showing how many of these young people live in Maine. Here is a look at the increasing number of children seeking the status nationwide.

The Nickersons, who obtained legal guardianship of the woman, began to compile the documents needed for an SIJ application, which might include letters from doctors or therapists, court documents from her guardianship case and reports on the status of children in her home country.

At the same time the woman was applying for legal status in the United States, she was applying to college. She contacted every school directly to explain her immigration status. Some were unwilling to work with her. Others promised to wait. But without a green card, she could neither work nor apply for federal student loans.

“She had been accepted to all these colleges, and then it stalemated,” Hollander said. “Because she didn’t have a green card.”

The woman had submitted all the required materials in time for her 18th birthday, but she privately worried about what would happen next even as she studied for exams in the spring of her senior year. She had to reschedule her AP Psychology exam so she could be photographed and fingerprinted at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in South Portland.

“That was a really hectic day,” she said.

The final step of the application process was an in-person interview. At the end, the interviewer said she would approve the application for SIJ status. When she got to the car, the teenager screamed in excitement.

“You let out all the anxiety you had built up from two years ago,” she said, still giddy months later. “Then I could be a normal teenager who is trying to get her financial aid stuff in and is starting to freak out about actual college.”

The woman was able to submit her federal student loan forms exactly on her deadline.

After her high school graduation in June, her green card allowed her to get a summer job in Portland. She also accepted a paying internship with Portland Public Schools, writing a report to help the city’s high schools improve their resources for students who don’t qualify for federal student loans. Her college connected her with her roommate. She plans to major in international development, perhaps with a double major in education.

“I like systems and thinking about people and how they can be better served,” she said. “I want to focus on the next generation and making them feel important from the day they come to school.”

The young woman is now a college freshman in Boston. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree would likely not have been possible for her without SIJ status.

“It matters to give kids a chance at a normal life,” she said.

Like a typical American teenager, she waited until the very end of her summer break to pack. Moving to college was very different than the last time she quickly packed her bags, but her mother’s silver necklace is still around her neck.


WHAT IS SPECIAL IMMIGRANT JUVENILE STATUS?

Congress created special immigrant juvenile status, or SIJ status, in 1990. It’s designed for non-U.S. citizen children who do not have permanent residence and who have been abused, neglected or abandoned. They cannot safely be reunited with their families or return to their home countries. In most cases, these minors have come alone to the United States.

What does it mean to have special immigrant juvenile status?

A minor who has been granted SIJ status is eligible for legal permanent residence in the United States, also called a green card. He or she would also be allowed to obtain a work permit, a driver’s license and financial aid for college. A minor who has obtained a green card through the SIJ program can never petition for a green card for his or her parents. If the person granted SIJ status becomes a U.S. citizen, he or she could petition for a green card for a sibling.

Who qualifies?

A child who is in the United States but is not a citizen and does not have legal permanent residence. It must be determined that it is not in the child’s best interest to be returned to his or her last country, and that the child cannot safely be reunited with one or both parents because of abuse, abandonment or neglect. In Maine, applicants for SIJ status must file before their 18th birthday. In some states, the deadline is their 21st birthday.

What is the application process like?

To be eligible for SIJ status, a child must first be in the custody of the state or have a legal guardian in the United States, which requires a legal process and court order. The application for SIJ status requires multiple forms and documents. They might include letters from doctors or therapists, court documents from the guardianship case and reports on the status of children in the child’s home country. Biographical information, a medical exam and fingerprinting are also necessary. An in-person interview is the final required step.

How long does it take?

Lucky Hollander, of Portland, who works with unaccompanied minors through her group Helpful Links, said the entire process used to take less than a year. As more people apply for SIJ status, however, a backlog of cases has extended processing times. The guardianship process is now taking four to six months, and immigration attorneys say a petition for SIJ status is taking up to a year.

How many people seek and receive special immigrant juvenile status each year?

The number of SIJ applicants has increased dramatically in recent years.

In fiscal year 2010, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received roughly 1,600 petitions for SIJ status. Only 97 applications – 6 percent – were denied.

Last year, however, the number of petitions was nearly 19,500. Still, fewer than 600 – 3 percent – were denied. More than 15,000 applications were approved.

The national backlog of cases has grown from 35 in 2010 to nearly 10,000 at the end of March 2017. It is not known how many of those young people settled in Maine.

Why the big increase?

In recent years, the number of minors who are crossing the southern American border illegally exploded. Many of these children are fleeing poverty and gang violence in such Latin American countries as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Thousands qualify for SIJ status, which has increasingly become a solution for them in the United States.

What changes have been made or proposed that would affect unaccompanied minor immigrants?

SIJ status is not the same as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. That program defers deportation for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. They do not have legal status, but they are allowed to live and work in the United States without punishment. President Trump has rescinded DACA.

SIJ status, by comparison, does give legal permanent resident status to those eligible. A national backlog of cases is making it harder and more time-consuming to obtain SIJ status, but so far, the Trump administration has not proposed or made specific changes to the SIJ program. Generally, the president has succeeded in restricting travel and visas for people coming to the United States, and the Trump administration has increased immigration enforcement across the country. As a result, minors who plan to travel to the United States may be prevented from doing so, and news organizations, including The Washington Post and the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting have reported deportations of undocumented minors who are in the process of applying for SIJ status.



BURUNDI
Burundi is a landlocked nation in East Africa. It is one of the smallest nations in Africa and is densely populated. Since the 1970s, Burundi has endured ethnic cleansing, genocide and civil war.

Since April 2015, government security forces, intelligence services and a ruling-party youth league were responsible for “killings, disappearances, abductions, torture, rape and arbitrary arrest,” according to a July 2017 Human Rights Watch report. Armed opposition groups, for their part, carried out attacks and killed members of the ruling party, the report notes. The report describes a repressive government and a co-opted justice system.

The United Nations Security Council this summer expressed concern over the country’s worsening humanitarian situation and a U.N. commission pointed to human rights violations and a climate of fear.

Against that background, the U.N. reported in May that since April 2015, 420,689 Burundians fled to neighboring countries and more refugees are expected.

Cultural reference in Maine: A local Burundian drumming and dance group, Batimbo Beats, periodically performs.