LINCOLN — In two separate rulings Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered judges in Omaha and Lincoln to grant special immigrant status to teenagers fleeing violence and gangs in Guatemala.
The two county court judges, Thomas Harmon in Douglas County and Holly Parsley in Lancaster County, had ruled that relatives should become legal guardians to the two youths, who had fled to the U.S. at ages 16 and 17 without any other family.
But the judges had declined to rule on whether they deserved to be granted special immigrant juvenile status, which would allow them to remain in the country and seek lawful permanent resident status. Both judges said that such decisions should be made by the separate juvenile courts in those counties, and could not be made by the county court.
But the Supreme Court, in rulings written by Justice Lindsey Miller-Lerman, disagreed, citing a state law that went into effect July 19 clarifying that county court judges can make such rulings.
One of the youths, identified only as Carlos D., said he was repeatedly beaten by a stepfather, then told he was “a mistake/error” by his mother after the stepfather abandoned the family. Carlos D. said he fled Guatemala after he was regularly intimidated, robbed and beaten by members of the MS 13, who were trying to force him to join the gang.
The other youth, identified only as Luis J., said he fled to the U.S. after repeated beatings by an alcoholic father, who assaulted him repeatedly when he tried to protect his mother and forced him to quit school at age 11 so he could go to work.
The cases of the two youths were returned to the county courts for further proceedings. The special immigrant status is granted when it would not be prudent to return a child to their native land due to abuse, neglect or abandonment.
The youths were represented by the Immigrant Legal Center of Omaha and Lincoln attorney David Chipman, with assistance from legal clinics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Creighton law schools.