By Stephanie Harp
Editor’s note: This article contains general descriptions of youth escaping danger in their home countries and finding themselves alone in Maine.
One day in March 2013, retired child and family advocate Lucky Hollander received an email from a Portland high school social worker. “She was sending it to everyone she could think of because she had this young woman who was here alone and was losing her housing,” Hollander said. “We raised three daughters and we’ve had teens in and out of our house all the time, so the idea of possibly housing somebody was not that big of a deal for us.”
When she and her husband met with the young woman, they said, “Why don’t you come and stay here through the summer, and then we’ll evaluate how things are going. By that time she was part of the family.”
Meanwhile, Hollander contacted Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project (ILAP) to learn what legal steps they needed to take for the teen, who was one of many unaccompanied minors in the Portland area sent to the U.S. for safety by their families. ILAP explained the special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) path to permanency for any youth under 18 with a guardian. While many of these children may not meet the legal definition of asylum, they are often in danger because their parents have been hurt, killed, or persecuted, which could translate into danger for them.
Because of that, there is a separate category to file for permanency for children fitting certain criteria, Hollander explained. This is very different from asylum seekers, who must prove a claim of one or more of five reasons they are in danger due to past or future persecution.
At the time of that first email, youth from Central Africa were arriving with student visas to enroll in schools in the U.S., including Portland, South Portland, and Westbrook. Families may not have been able to obtain visas, but they were able to send children to live with relatives or friends. Sometimes the potentially permanent plans fell through, and the young people found themselves in the U.S. alone. “So kids in Maine either got here because they knew other people who had come to Maine or, after they arrived, they met somebody from their country who helped them come here.”
Hollander decided to help find host families, and Hopeful Links was born as a volunteer- and community-based program that matches unaccompanied minors with potential guardians, safe housing, and legal resources, and provides assistance with health, housing, food, and many other community supports. “My background is in child welfare, so I knew how to screen families and arrange safe housing. I knew what families might need for support, and how to connect them to the right services. So that’s what we started doing,” she said. “At the time, all the kids we were working with were from Central Africa, and all on student visas, without exception.”
This was true until the Trump administration when the picture drastically changed. “One of the first things that happened was they stopped issuing student visas,” she said. Minors who apply for student visas must have a school to attend and a place to live. These requirements are less rigorous than for those who apply for university-level student visas. After the 2016 election, young people stopped coming to Maine directly from African countries. “Maybe they were coming from another state, where they’d lost housing for whatever reason, and had to find help, and knew somebody here,” said Hollander. Preble Street’s Teen Shelter was seeing more of these teenagers.
Schools called her when they learned that students were at the shelter or were couch surfing with friends. She found host families and arranged for ILAP to assess the students’ eligibility for SIJS.
Those young people from Africa who have begun to appear at the southern U.S. border alone in the last year don’t necessarily start that way. “Often they came with a parent or another adult and got separated at the border,” said Hollander. The group ultimately housed at the Portland Expo in 2019, who had taken the treacherous trek through South and Central America, were almost all families. Until the past year, few older (over 18) Central African teens arrived in Maine alone. Since 2016, they typically have been stopped at the border and detained. Now Maine is seeing teens who have been released from detention. This is a much more difficult route to legal assessment and permanent residency than the path for those who arrived with visas. While there are also unaccompanied minors of all ages from South and Central America, Hopeful Links and the teen shelter usually don’t see many of them. That doesn’t mean they are not in Maine, it means that they access help and support differently.
Besides housing, she appeals to her many supporters for donations to cover costs of essential needs. “We use it for whatever urgent need they have. We pay for things for families, too, not just for kids,” she said. One primary consideration is obtaining cell phones for the young people, a cost not included if they are receiving general assistance (GA) from the city of Portland. Hopeful Links has advocated for the need for at least one member of a family to have a cell phone.
Hollander described a typical story that brings young people here: A family member might be involved in an organization opposing the ruling government. They may be fighting for freedom and democracy, and are targeted for being perceived as anti-government – whether that’s true or not. “Sometimes they come and say, ‘You need to stop doing this, or else.’ In some countries, youth militia start harassing young people who are active in any kind of liberation work.” That may trigger an assault of some sort against the child or the family, so the family starts the process of trying to get their kids out of the country.
The first student who came to live with Hollander in 2013 was the only girl in her family of five children, and they’d decided she was the most vulnerable. Girls often are vulnerable, both to violence and because they are not valued the same way in any society, Hollander said. “That’s why we were initially seeing a lot more girls than boys. We didn’t see a boy for three or four years.”
Many of the youth – and their families – thought the families would follow soon. “But it is much harder for a family to get a visa.” she said. “The one stipulation for special juvenile status is that they cannot sponsor their families, ever.” And the families aren’t necessarily sending the students because they expect to come themselves. “They’re doing it to save their children.”
The young woman who joined Hollander’s family in 2013 graduated from high school two years later with a full scholarship to Wheaton College in Massachusetts. “She started dating somebody she actually grew up with in Burundi and found out he was here. They got married, both now have U.S. citizenship, and they recently had a baby. It’s the perfect story,” Hollander said. She and Hopeful Links are working toward as many more happy endings like this one as they can.
Contact Hopeful Links, c/o Lucky Hollander, [email protected].