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:: By Lydialyle Gibson

:: Photography by Kathy Richland

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Features ::

Nobody’s child

Who looks out for immigrant children without parents or papers? Law School lecturer Maria Woltjen runs a program for kids who are alone.

When the women across the table begin asking Valentina about her stepfather back home in South America, she knows where the conversation is heading: to the night four years ago when her mother left her alone with him and she realized—finally, suddenly—what it would mean to be raped. She was 11 years old. Until then, she had believed that his advances, the way he touched her and the things he said, were somehow part of a game. But that night when he turned out the light, she was more frightened than she’d ever been. She fled, hiding for long, dark hours in the cornfields beyond the house.


“The advocate’s main job,” Woltjen says, “is to get the child’s story.”

Valentina, now 15, hugs one knee to her chest and tries to smile. One of the women, child advocate Maria Woltjen, asks if she wants the questions to stop. Does she need to rest? Would she like a glass of juice? “No,” she says. “Está bien.”

Sitting in the brightly lit dining room of her foster family’s suburban Chicago home, flanked by an interpreter, her foster mother, Woltjen, and two Chicago law students, Valentina is 3,500 miles away from that awful night and the collection of towns where her mother and stepfather still live, along with her half-siblings and stepsiblings, the grandmother who called her names and the biological father she will refer to only as “ese tío”—“that guy.” When she was 14, Valentina (whose real name was changed for this story) escaped to the United States, bearing no legal documents and owing $10,000 to smugglers. She took on two jobs to repay the debt and slept on a coworker’s floor. Then a stroke of luck: during one of her daily bus commutes, she crossed paths with a group of nuns from Chicago’s West Side. They befriended her, and when Valentina had to find somewhere else to live this past fall, she called them looking for rescue. The sisters took her in and helped guide her to a nonprofit network of volunteer foster families. Now she goes to school, not work, and studies English hungrily, happily, learning by leaps and bounds.

Woltjen, meanwhile, is helping with Valentina’s immigration case. A University of Chicago Law School lecturer since 2006, she leads a team that includes second-year law students Rahwa Ghebre and Meredith Waters, working out of the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. Woltjen thinks Valentina can mount a strong argument for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a visa available to children who suffered “abuse, neglect, or abandonment” in their home countries and would not be safe if they returned.

For more than four years, Woltjen has sat down with dozens of children who, like Valentina, ended up alone in this country—without parents or papers, and often without much understanding of why they’re here and what might happen to them. Most are teenagers, but some are far younger; Woltjen remembers one boy from India who was picked up at the Canadian border. He couldn’t have been older than five or six. “He was a mystery,” she says. “There was almost zero information.” Carrying no identification, the boy couldn’t say exactly where he was from and didn’t know his parents’ full names. He stayed in government custody for eight months while Woltjen and Mary Meg McCarthy, director of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides pro bono legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers, scrambled to decipher the scant clues to his origin. When his parents finally surfaced—they sent for him after years of living in the United States—a DNA test had to confirm the connection. “They hadn’t seen him,” Woltjen says, “since he was one year old.”

Woltjen serves as these children’s “advocate,” a role she pioneered as founding director of the Immigrant Child Advocacy Project (ICAP), now housed at the Law School. Launched in December 2003 using space donated by a downtown Chicago law firm, ICAP is the only organization of its kind in the country. It fills a gap overlooked by the thousands of statutes governing immigration law: children. Children, Woltjen says, need someone to watch out for them. She and her cadre of 45 advocates—many of them Chicago law students—fall somewhere between attorneys and parents. They give advice, but they also give comfort; as much as they agonize over their charges’ legal fortunes, they also worry about their nightmares and daily diets, their friendships and family lives. “The advocate’s main job,” Woltjen says, “is to get the child’s story,” to understand why the child came here and how, and to find out what life was like in China or Somalia or Honduras or Burma. “If they have to go back,” she asks, “what will the child return to?”

Advocates elicit the youngsters’ life histories not only to uncover the brutal facts that might win them asylum, but also to determine their best interests. After arduous journeys and weeks or months in federal custody, some children just want to go home, not fully realizing or remembering the danger that awaits. Others’ decisions may be clouded by mental illness or emotional trauma. For a few with stable, loving homes, going back actually makes the most sense. Attorneys, Woltjen says, are bound by their clients’ stated wishes, but advocates’ duties require them to look deeper, “to tell the lawyers and the judge that what the child’s asking for may be different from what’s best.”

So far, Woltjen and her advocates have worked with 220 children, most housed at the International Children Center (ICC), a Chicago shelter for unaccompanied youths from all over the world. Tucked among houses and apartments on a North Side residential street, the building was once a nursing home. As many as 57 children sleep in dorm-like rooms with couches and bunk beds and name tags on the doors. Their snapshots and artwork decorate hallway walls; their writing assignments line the classrooms where staff members teach them English. On a bulletin board outside ICC Director Sharon Khurana’s office hang farewell letters written by children departing the shelter. One, from a 17-year-old Chinese boy, reads, “Every-body have good luck very soon get freedom!” Most youngsters spend a couple of months at the ICC before heading to other housing, but some stay longer. “All the kids,” Woltjen says, “rely on the shelter staff,” who altogether speak 30 languages. In fact, it’s ICC staff who identify the youngsters most in need of advocates—ones who seem withdrawn or frightened, or those too young to make decisions.

Partly, the work of an advocate is intuitive—feeling sympathy, giving comfort—but ICAP’s volunteers also rely on training. New applicants undergo daylong sessions with experts in immigration law, human trafficking, adolescent trauma, and childhood development. Some advocate recruits are attorneys or law students; others are social workers, teachers, and therapists. Many grew up outside the United States, and nearly all speak at least two languages. At a training session on campus this past January, the group included two Peace Corps alums, a U of C Divinity School graduate student, and a Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate who worked with South American torture survivors and was writing an anthropology dissertation on unaccompanied children. Speaking first, Woltjen offered tips on winning immigrant children’s trust. “You’re another stranger,” she warned. “These children are scared, and they’re coached not to tell the whole story. Sometimes they won’t talk to you for two months. You have to be patient.” Katherine Kaufka, executive director of the U.S.–based International Organization for Adolescents, walked the trainees through a hypothetical case involving an Indian girl trafficked into indentured servitude. Social worker Cecelia Quinn said traumatized children often experience physical pain in addition to their psychological suffering. Backaches and headaches accompany graphic and specific fears: “starvation, war, dismembered bodies—things they have seen before.”


Advocates give kids a focal point to cling to in an otherwise frightening ordeal.

Children traveling alone have always been a part of the developing world’s refugee landscape. Losing homes and families to wars and famines, mudslides and earthquakes, they set out on foot for neighboring countries. But with the falling price of airfare in recent decades, even the poorest people find themselves more mobile. So while the majority of unaccompanied children still originate from Central and South America, where violence and instability propel immigrants to the U.S.southern border, they also come from Eastern Europe, South Asia, Africa, and the Far East. Hounded by the Chinese government, Falun Gong practitioners pay tens of thousands of dollars to smuggle their children out. Twelve-year-old boys flee Somalia and Sudan to escape conscription as child soldiers. Youths from all over the world run from abusive relatives or local gangs. Often the decision to leave home is not theirs.

Each year U.S. immigration officials apprehend roughly 8,000 undocumented immigrants under the age of 18 who arrive separated from parents or proper guardians—though they may be in the company of smugglers or traffickers. That number does not include those turned away before they reach U.S. soil, and certainly many make the journey undetected. Once detained, children begin a bewildering voyage through a court system that holds them to the same evidentiary standards as adults, often without legal counsel. “There is no other adversarial system in our country where children are not guaranteed a court-appointed attorney,” says McCarthy. “You see juveniles going into immigration court completely alone, and they have no idea what’s happening. You can have a sympathetic judge, but the judge still has to be an impartial adjudicator. They can only do so much.” In 2002 a Georgetown University study found that petitioners of all ages were six times more likely to win asylum with legal counsel than without it. According to the U.S. Asylum Office, between 1999 and 2003 children with attorneys obtained asylum 48 percent of the time; children without, 27 percent.

Having good lawyers is essential. Some, unscrupulous or incompetent, take advantage of foreigners’ ignorance and desperation, keeping their money and delivering little in return. As a third-year law student, Christina Gibson, JD’07, served as advocate for a teenage girl from Cameroon whose case was wrecked by attorney negligence. She should have been able to win asylum for political persecution—her parents had run afoul of Cameroon’s autocratic ruling party. “The girl’s uncle here in the U.S. paid a lawyer in Texas $2,000 or $3,000,” Gibson remembers. “But the guy spent no time getting her story. He didn’t even meet with her before they went to court.” The judge rejected her application, and by the time Gibson met her more than a year later, she’d been apprehended and had all but run out of legal options. “We worked with some NIJC attorneys and filed an appeal, but the paperwork her first attorney put out there was so shoddy and full of holes that we just couldn’t make up for it.” Three years after she’d left Cameroon at age 15, federal authorities loaded the girl onto a plane and flew her back.

Some attorneys are worse than incompetent. “We see lawyers who are actually working for the smugglers or the traffickers,” Woltjen says. “So their goal is to get the child released from custody and into whatever work situation they’re destined for.” Release from custody isn’t permission to live in the United States; it only allows children to stay with relatives or foster families while their cases wind through the courts. Because attorneys employed by smugglers and traffickers often stop working once their clients are out of custody, children with promising legal claims miss court dates and filing deadlines. They end up slapped with deportation orders. “And that’s that,” Woltjen says. “If the child gets picked up by immigration years later, he’s going to be deported. Very few avenues remain open.”

And yet U.S. law offers protections that should be within more children’s grasp. First is asylum, open to immigrants who fear persecution in their home countries, whether political, religious, or ethnic. About 500 children apply for asylum annually, but fewer than one-third obtain it. An alternative to asylum is an SIJS visa, like the one Valentina wants. Each year about 500 abused or abandoned children manage to secure SIJS, but at a price: it officially severs them forever from their parents. They cannot sponsor siblings as candidates for citizenship, and children mistreated by only one parent find themselves cut off from the other as well.

Meanwhile, victims of human trafficking (which, unlike smuggling, involves criminal exploitation—usually forced servitude or sexual slavery) can apply for T visas, which offer three years of protection with the possibility of permanent residence. But trafficking is hard to uncover and even harder to prove. Victims are hidden and isolated. After they’re discovered, even the most traumatized must give detailed testimony about their ordeals. Often they must help police investigate the crimes. Only a fraction find rescue: although the State Department estimates that as many as 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year, thousands of them younger than 18, Harvard University legal scholar Jacqueline Bhabha reports that only 45 children were “certified as trafficking victims” between October 2000 and June 2004. An even smaller number of children have won U visas, offered to those who suffer serious crimes once they reach U.S. shores: rape, incest, domestic violence, kidnapping, forced prostitution, female circumcision. The executive director of Harvard’s Committee on Human Rights Studies—and founding director, in 1997, of the U of C’s Human Rights Program—Bhabha coauthored a 2006 report on underage asylum seekers that called the U.S. approach to immigrant children “Kafkaesque”: both “surreal in its application of adult procedures to some of society’s most vulnerable children, and full of foreboding for the children involved.”

The 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bhabha notes, brought mixed reforms. Enforcement spiked, and undocumented immigrants found themselves on the wrong side of rising American alarm over foreigners without papers. At the same time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)—for many years a tangle of ballooning budgets and administrative delays—was dismantled, and the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, which assumed its responsibilities, reconsidered immigrant children’s treatment. For years the INS housed them in detention centers that also held juveniles convicted of rape and murder. “Not to mention the conflict of interest,” McCarthy says, “in having one agency responsible for the care and custody of children it’s simultaneously trying to carry out enforcement orders against.” In 2003 Homeland Security transferred the job of caring for detained children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency in the Department of Health and Human Services. Almost as soon as ORR officials took charge of young immigrants’ custody, McCarthy called. “Children need someone who’s separate from the government and the attorneys,” she told ORR. She proposed an advocacy program. Officials agreed, but asked: who would run it? McCarthy’s answer: Maria Woltjen.

There was probably no escaping an activist life for the daughter of Jack Woltjen. “My father was a singular guy,” she says. In his 2004 book Never a City So Real, journalist Alex Kotlowitz, who is also Woltjen’s husband, described with admiration his father-in-law’s “oversized ventures,” and a 1999 Chicago Tribune obituary called him a man of “many passions and commitments to America’s needy.” A Chicago native, Jack Woltjen spent a postwar year as a novice at a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where he studied at the elbow of monk and theologian Thomas Merton. Later he married Woltjen’s mother, Fran, who’d recently left a convent, and the two opened a Catholic Worker farm in Missouri for recovering alcoholics. One of nine children, Woltjen was born there, although she spent much of her childhood in Austin, a neighborhood on Chicago’s western edge. Other whites fled when black residents arrived in the 1960s, but the Woltjens stayed put. They joined civil-rights marches, and Woltjen’s father, one of the first to implement “testing”-—in which a white couple posing as prospective tenants tried, usually successfully, to rent an apartment for which a black couple had been turned down—helped root out racism.

Woltjen graduated Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1987. Her first job was with a litigation firm. “I worked there for four years,” she says, “and for four years my father refused to set foot in the place. He didn’t understand how I could get a law degree and not do public practice.” As soon as she paid off her student debt, she did. In 1991 Woltjen became director of the Children’s Advocacy Project of the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, working on delinquency, health, and disabilities. Then, from 2001 to 2004, she taught at Loyola’s ChildLaw Center, focusing on environmental hazards affecting children. That’s where she was when McCarthy called to pitch the idea for an immigrant-child advocacy program.

In developing ICAP, Woltjen conferred with experts around the country on immigration and unaccompanied children, including McCarthy and Bhabha. To some extent, the advocacy work parallels that of guardians ad litem, court-appointed volunteers—usually lawyers—who protect the rights and interests of U.S. children caught up in custody fights, paternity suits, and child-abuse cases. Woltjen took cues from the United Nations Refugee Agency and from the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act, a bill laying out child advocates’ role. Introduced to the Senate numerous times by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the bill died in Congress again last year, along with comprehensive immigration reform. Woltjen also consulted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty drawn up in 1990. (Although the United States is among its 193 signatories, it is one of only two countries not to have ratified it; Somalia is the other.) The treaty forbids capital punishment for children and obliges nations to care for those whose parents cannot. It demands children be provided an education and shielded from dangerous work. And it pays particular attention to the notion of “best interest”; the phrase appears throughout the text. “Best interest is a guiding principle,” says Woltjen, who interprets the term to mean safety and well-being. “So that was my starting point.”

Steadily, ICAP’s mission crystallized. Advocates, Woltjen determined, would meet with their charges every week, sometimes talking, other times just playing cards, listening to music, or eating dinner. “The important thing is to build a trust,” Woltjen says. “Many of these kids have been through so much that it’s hard for them to know who’s on their side.” When young immigrants face hearings, their advocates go with them and help explain what’s happening. They make sure the lawyers are capable and that the children participate in their own cases. They give written recommendations about the children’s best interests to attorneys, who pass them on to the judge.

Often advocates do more. When necessary, they find pro bono psychologists and social workers to conduct evaluations. They recruit pro bono doctors to perform “forensic physicals,” which can yield a map of scars to corroborate children’s stories. Advocates chase down relatives, family friends, and teachers to verify the details of their lives. They mine newspaper archives and State Department or UNICEF reports to research living conditions in each child’s home country.

Woltjen handled the earliest cases herself. The first, which made headlines in the New York Times, concerned a Chinese boy, Young Zheng, who at 14 had flown to the United States with a fake passport supplied by Chinese smugglers called “snakeheads.” He owed them $60,000. Zheng was the second child born to his family—an involuntary lawbreaker subject to government punishment. His mother was dead, and his father had decided it was time to get him out of the home he shared with his new wife. He made a deal with the snakeheads, promising that Zheng would work to pay the debt.

Instead he was nabbed at Newark Liberty International Airport and spent a year at a Berks County, Pennsylvania, detention center, where conditions were so bad that the place was later shut down. Then Zheng was transferred to the ICC, where staff members summoned Woltjen. The boy was terrified and traumatized. “He didn’t understand why he was here,” she says. “He thought he was here to go to school.” She haggled to get Zheng released to an uncle in Akron, Ohio. He enrolled in school there and got straight A’s. Every month he packed a lunch and bought a bus ticket to Cleveland, where he checked in with immigration officials.

Then one month he didn’t go. “They’d told him he could start coming every three months instead,” Woltjen says. Federal officials didn’t remember it that way. The night after his missed appointment, they called Zheng, wanting to know where he was. When he came to their office the next day, they arrested him. It was March 2004. “They cuffed him, they shackled him, and they put him on a plane for Chicago,” Woltjen says. He was bound for China the following day. “We pulled out all the stops, but immigration officials took him into custody and tried to fly him out.” As he was escorted through O’Hare, Zheng panicked and banged his head against a metal pillar, knocking himself out. “He’d been told he was better off dying in the United States than coming back to China and putting everyone at risk,” Woltjen says. After all, he hadn’t been working to pay the smugglers, and men had shown up at his father’s house to ask for the money.

The concussion didn’t kill him, but it did prevent him from flying to China. Zheng was sent to a secure facility in Houston, where Woltjen and McCarthy found him pro bono attorneys. He remained under constant threat of immediate deportation, but “down in Houston,” Woltjen says, Fulbright & Jaworski, an international firm with 16 offices and more than 1,000 lawyers, “put ten attorneys on it, fought the case for a year, and now the boy has his green card and he’ll probably go to college next year.”

Hannah Sibiski, one of Zheng’s Houston attorneys, believes Woltjen’s involvement made the difference. “We had a kid who was incredibly traumatized,” she says. “He thought he was going to be tortured and murdered in China.” During his first two weeks in lockup, he was closed, quiet, blank. He didn’t have much to say to Sibiski or her colleague, John Sullivan. “But then he came out of that shell, and a lot of it was because he loved Maria,” Sibiski says. “He was able to trust us because she told him he could. That was huge.”

Sibiski contrasts Zheng’s case with that of another teenager her firm tried to represent, a young South American woman who’d been “severely sexually abused and tortured.” Says Sibiski: “We just couldn’t help her.” The girl was emotionally shattered, a danger to herself and others. Sibiski’s colleagues had trouble keeping her housed, and they couldn’t tell when she was lying. “She needed someone like Maria,” Sibiski says. “As lawyers, we don’t have the training to counsel someone so emotionally damaged, to interview them and understand what the truth is.” In court, DHS lawyers scrutinize every inconsistency in an immigrant’s testimony, anything that might betray a false story. “This poor girl needed help we couldn’t give her,” Sibiski says. “Literally, we had a lawyer in the firm calling around trying to find a therapist to counsel her for free.” They never got one, and Sibiski doesn’t know what became of her.

Advocates’ influence on a case can be immense. They give children a focal point in an otherwise frightening ordeal and, because some children confide more easily in advocates than attorneys, streamline the process of solidifying testimony and exploring legal options. They provide support that attorneys may feel they can’t offer. “As lawyers, we do some counseling, but we also have to push kids, do things to help them legally that might not be great for their psyche,” Sibiski says. “Having someone with an emotional connection helps the attorney focus on the law.”

Sometimes an advocate uncovers information that makes a child’s case winnable. One African boy who arrived at 16 got asylum because he’d been abandoned by his family and then abused by the government for being a street child. He spent several months at the ICC, “telling everybody he was fine, and that if he had to go back, he’d be fine,” Woltjen says. “Everyone suspected it wasn’t the whole story.” Shelter staffers steered him to an advocate who, as a native of his country, spoke the boy’s dialect. The story he told her was quite different: rejection by his family, daily torment by the police, and a paralyzing dread of deportation. He feared imprisonment for criticizing his government. “It was clear he had a case,” says Mary Hoopes, the Chicago attorney who represented him along with former colleague Charlotte Kaiser. “But without his advocate’s intervention, he may never have opened up, and we may never have known the basis for his claim.”

Woltjen hopes to see similar advocacy programs take root in other parts of the country, especially the Southwest, where children come flooding in from Central America, many without representation. She’d also like to see advocates’ role codified in the law—passing Feinstein’s bill, which guarantees advocates a place in immigration hearings and every child an advocate, would be a good start.

In the meantime, ICAP continues working with youngsters one by one. Toward the end of Woltjen’s interview with Valentina, the girl looks up at her, suddenly worried, whispering rapidly in Spanish. “She wants to know if something will happen to her before she goes to the judge,” the interpreter says. “‘When will the judge make his decision?’” Woltjen puts down her pen. “Nothing will happen before you go to court,” she says. “We’re looking out for you.”