Three Miami Law Clinics Recognized for Immigrant Child Advocacy

A collaboration between three of Miami Law’s clinics is named second runner up for The Florida Bar Foundation’s 2019 Paul Doyle Children’s Advocacy Award at the Foundation’s annual reception and dinner on June 27.
Picture of Bernard Perlmutter, Kele Stewart, Romy Lerner, and Melissa Swain

Bernard Perlmutter, Kele Stewart, Romy Lerner, and Melissa Swain

The project, Florida Supreme Court Amicus Advocacy for Immigrant Children Seeking Protection and SIJS Best Interest Order from Florida Dependency Courts, brought together the Children & Youth LawHealth Rights, and Immigration clinics. The clinics submitted three amicus curiae briefs in two separate cases in the Florida Supreme Court that contributed to a significant, unanimous 2017 decision of the Court holding that an immigrant child’s “intent” to seek Special Immigrant Juvenile Status from the federal government after filing a petition for dependency is not a reason to categorically deny the petition. The Court also ruled that state trial courts must focus on whether the immigrant child meets the statutory definitions of abandonment, abuse, or neglect rather than denying a petition without first investigating the facts and conducting a hearing.

“The opinions send a strong message to judges to apply the law as written and to not succumb to the anti-immigrant politics of the day,” said Rebecca Sharpless, director of the Immigration Clinic.

The Children & Youth Law Clinic has represented immigrant children in dependency court since the clinic was established in 1996. The Health Rights and Immigration clinics have provided this representation for over 10 years. During this extended period, the clinics have represented dozens of these children in dependency and foster care, delinquency, family custody, and probate court cases, as well as in the immigration visa phase of the SIJS and permanent residence process. 

“Each clinic, separately, represents individual clients in individual cases, said Melissa Swain, associate director of the Health Rights Clinic. “This project was a great opportunity for the UM clinical program to join forces to effectuate state-wide change.”

For almost all these clients, their journeys to the courthouse and their experiences in the courtroom before receptive judges have been transformative, even life-changing, according to Bernard Perlmutter, co-director, Children and Youth Law Clinic. “Representing these clients has also fueled our efforts to share our expertise and experiences with other advocates for immigrant children,” he said.

The Paul Doyle Children’s Advocacy Award honors Paul C. Doyle, founding director of the Foundation’s Legal Assistance for the Poor and Law Student Assistance Grant Programs (1991 to 2013) in recognition of his commitment to high-quality legal representation of Florida’s low-income children; for encouraging grantee programs to collaborate across geographic regions in order to bring the benefit of legal advocacy to low-income children regardless of their county of residence; for his strong and consistent support of Florida Bar Foundation Legal Assistance for the Poor and Law Student Assistance grantees; and for a career dedicated to promoting high-quality legal representation of the poor.

The award recognizes and encourages systemic legal advocacy on behalf of low-income children by Florida Bar Foundation Legal Assistance for the Poor and Children’s Legal Services Grantees.

“The goal of the project was to end the categorical and summary dismissals of private dependency petition based on the immigrant child’s intent to seek special immigrant juvenile status,” says Perlmutter. “The children needed to be able to seek the courts’ protections from abuse or neglect and to obtain ‘best interest orders’ from the dependency court judges to qualify for the special status.”